Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham. Compare, contrast, explain.
Prize: a Minerva prize and statue
Who may enter: anyone may enter. Just send us an essay that answers the question. Send your answers to email@example.com.
Deadline for submissions: December 10, 2013
Designers, anthropologists, strategists, ethnographers, writers, artists, activists, musicians, digitists, and other cultural creatives live or die by their knowledge of culture. The more we know, the more adroitly we know it, the deeper our mastery of this knowledge and the forces that produce it, the more surely we will flourish.
So here’s a test of your knowledge. Who are Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham? As young American celebrities, they are conspicuous parts of popular culture. They express trends already in motion “out there.” This makes them cultural “effects.” But they also shape and clarify things that are beginning to emerge. This makes them cultural “causes.”
Who are these women and what do they say about our life and times? What are the causes (trends, events, developments) of which they are effects? And what are the effects (trends, events, developments) of which they are causes? What shaped them, what are they shaping?
You’ve got lots to work with. These women have made many stylistic choices, in voice, language, clothing, emotional style, music, make-up, hair, homes, bars, neighborhoods, restaurants, rituals, ceremonies, friends, boyfriends, husbands, celebrity. They have fashioned detailed, vivid, public personae. X-ray these, please. These are very different public performances. Review them, please. At the very least we are looking at very different visions of femaleness. Give us the what and the how. And the why.
We are not looking for ridicule. Kardashian and Dunham are high profile and attract lots of comment and some derision. That’s not our job. Nor is this a popularity contest. We don’t care if you like one of these women more than the other. Your job is to write a beautifully thoughtful, balanced, dispassionate, detailed, insightful piece that might help someone in the year 2113 figure out who these women were and “what they stood for.”
The differences will be readily apparent. The similarities perhaps not so much. But it’s worth remembering that these women come from the same culture, they live in (roughly) the same moment. Honor the differences but see if you can spot the commonalities. (And marvel that American culture can produce two entirely credible woman who are so dramatically different.)
We only want 1000 words. Because if it’s good enough for a Oxbridge college, it’s good enough for us. The winner will win a Minerva statue and a measure of immortality as a Minerva winner. (Hey, it will look good on your c.v.)
The Minerva Judges:
Caley Cantrell, BrandCenter, Virginia Commonwealth University
Noah Cruickshank, AV Club
Janet Kestin, Swim
Leora Kornfeld, Harvard
Adrian Ho, Zeus Jones
Ruby Strong, Lord Byng
Nancy Vonk, Swim
I just banged out a description of ethnography for a client.
Here it is:
The object of ethnography is to determine how the consumer sees the product, the service, the innovation. Often, this is obscure to us. We can’t see into the consumer’s (customer’s, viewer’s, user’s) head and heart because we are, in a sense, captive of our own heads and hearts. We have our way of seeing and experiencing the world. This becomes our barrier to entry. Ethnography is designed to give us a kind of helicopter experience. It takes up out of what we know and lowers us into the world of the consumer.
Ethnography is a messy method. In the beginning stages, we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know what we need to ask. We are walking around the consumer’s world looking for a way in. Eventually, as we ask a series of questions, we begin to see which ones work. We begin to collect the language and the logic the consumer uses. And eventually, we begin to see how they see the world.
The method is designed not to impose a set of questions and terms on the discussion, but to allow these to emerge over the course of the conversation. We are allowing the consumer to choose a path for the interview. We are endowing them with a sense that they are the expert. We are honoring the fact that they know and we don’t. (Because they do!)
Eventually, we end up with a great mass of data and it is now time to stop the ethnography and start the anthropology. Now we will use what we know about our culture, this industry, these consumers, this part of America to spot the essential patterns that make these data make sense. ”Slap your head” insights begin to emerge. ”Oh, that’s what their world looks like!” “That’w what they care about!” ”This is what they want!”
And now we begin to look for strategic and tactical recommendations. Now we can help close the gap between what the consumer wants and what the client makes.
(For a more technical description of the method, please see my The Long Interview. Sage.)
A couple of days ago, I posted this question:
1) Why is Gill Sans winning out over Helvetica? (If it is, and, come on, it is.) Long the visual language of public institutions in the UK (the subway, especially), it looked until recently (to me at least) a little out of touch. But now it seems to be to have all the punchy clarity of the sans-serif regime without giving away the ability to evoke something bigger than the message at hand.
I invited people to submit answers, promising a Minerva to the best essay.
The results are in and the winner is Carlen Lea Lesser. Her answer is below.
Understanding the Return of Gill Sans
by Carlen Lea Lesser
Each era seems to have a font or fonts that define it, and from then on that font carries the weight of history and all the cultural associations that go along with it. While Helvetica seems to have been the font of choice since it’s arrival on the scene in the 1950s, recent years have seen the resurgence of Gill Sans. While it may take a long time for Gill Sans to over take Helvetica — if it ever does — there does seem to be a clear trend. One way to understand interplay between these two fonts is to use the generational/socio-cultural theories of Strauss and Howe. These two historians mapped a pattern of interconnected generational (Generations) and socio-cultural (Turnings) cycles that repeat every 80-100 years and tracked back through all of American history and back through much of British history. By analyzing the times these fonts appeared and re-appeared through the lens of the four turnings, we can see that there are clear cultural reasons behind Gill Sans gaining new popularity.
Helvetica comes out of the late 1950s the end of an era of post-war prosperity and confidence; smack in the middle of the “American High” period in the parlance of Strauss and Howe. Despite being created in Switzerland, it screens the 1950s vision of modern and clean. The lines are strong, bold and clear — the ambivalence and confusion of the Great Depression and WWII are gone. One of the interesting characteristics of Helvetica is its relationship to the Bauhaus movement. Helvetica was designed to take the emotion out of type. It was seen as a “neutral” typeface that would not add any additional mean or emotions. It presents itself as strong, clear, and bold. It is a font that has the promise of this exact moment being right and true.
It is both surprising and unsurprising that Helvetica held on through the 1960s and all the way into the 2000s. No one ever really wants to let go of a High Period, especially those who were raised in one like the Baby Boomers. High Periods, like the idyllic 1950s and early-1960s of the Boomers’ childhood, are times of great security and public confidence in institutions, and lacking in individualism. In the Awakening of the 1960-1970s, Helvetica would have represented a calm center in the storm for those tossed about by the counter-culture revolution. It was the font of IBM, American Airlines, and Bell Atlantic; solid, stable companies that represented the best of America. As we moved to the Unraveling of the 1980s-1990s, those same people who needed the stability of Helvetica in the counter-culture of 1960s needed it even more, and the former Hippies turned into the Yuppies of the 1980s. Needless to say the promise of economic growth of IBM, Mattel, and General Motors was appealing to the Yuppies of the 1980s.
Then there is Gill Sans, a product of the late 1920s England. The font it a derivative of “humanist” sans-serif category of san-serif fonts, but with more line variation and legibility of many sans-serifs. It’s considered to be the most “calligraphic” of the sans-serif, which I take to mean the one you can that most lets the humanity through. It’s a font that seems to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future. It promises a future more interesting than clean, clear, and strong. It moves away from the curly-cued serifs of the Art Nouveau era and foreshadows the “Great Gatsby” era deco lines that would follow in the years to come. But it doesn’t really evoke either era. Gill Sans is really a font about hope — hope of moving out of the Crisis of the Great Depression and into that beautiful American High period.
While designed just before the Great Depression, Gill Sans really hit its peak when Penguin books adopted it for its cover fonts in 1935. By most measures the USA and the world began to recover from the Depression around 1933. It was hardly a boom time, but signs of improvement were beginning. 1935 was the height of the Art Deco era, and Gill Sans — a font developed just a few years after the Art Deco aesthetic was introduced to the world became the font of choice for what was to become of the world’s biggest publishers. Edward Tufte puts it best when he describes it is a classic and elegant looking font. It is a font that evokes the best of what the Art Deco movement was about: faith in social and technological progress (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_Deco). A believe that the Crisis will end and not only will everything be okay again — but better than before.
While Helvetica may have persisted because it subconsciously reminded Baby Boomers of their childhood in the 1950s, a time idealized as having been when all was right and good with the world, Gill Sans is a font of faith in progress. Which do we really need right now? As we are in the heart of the current Crisis period, it is not a shock that we are seeing a resurgence of Gill Sans. Will it surpass Helvetica? Who knows. Most likely it will serve it’s purpose to act as a sign of hope that we are moving forward and then we will transition back to a Realist-style sans serif like Helvetica during the next High Period.
Two puzzles have crossed my path this week:
1) Why is Gill Sans winning out over Helvetica? (If it is, and, come on, it is.) Long the visual language of public institutions in the UK (the subway, especially), it looked until recently (to me at least) a little out of touch. But now it seems to be to have all the punchy clarity of the sans-serif regime without giving away the ability to evoke something bigger than the message at hand.
There is a follow up question: will Gary Hustwit ever make a documentary about it of the kind he made for Helvetica? I would so love to see this documentary. The Helvetica doc is a thing of wonder. ”Gill Sans” as a follow-up doc would have lots more historical depth and charm. No modernist hoodlum this.
2) Why is that in at least two instances in popular culture, the role of the guardian angel is occupied by a psychopath. I refer to Dexter and the BBC show Luther, and in the case of Luther specifically to the character Alice Morgan. Strictly speaking, the last person who should serve in this capacity is a psychopath, but somehow in our culture right now, the notion is not implausible.
Anyone want to write fewer-than-a-thousand words on either topic (or for the very daring both at once) should send it to me and if it’s really good, you will win a Minerva.
Thanks to Wikipedia for the Gill Sans Demo.
Cynically speaking, the way we describe ourselves on Twitter is self aggrandizing (“self-branding” in the language of Tom Peters), but I prefer to think of it as an opportunity for endearment. I love these people.
Mike Duda @MikeDuda Co-founder | Consigliere Brand Capital * Marketer * Investor * Rabble-rouser * Orange Fanatic * Barely lost NYC Marathon to 34,566 runners
nick sherrard @nicksherrard as seen on CCTV
Philippa Dunjay @PhilippaDunjay likes short walks on the beach before getting out of breath, complaining about all the sand, why is the water so salty, did you just step on a hermit crab?
Geeka @Geeka I used to work w/ things that would kill me eventually, now I work w/ things that can kill me immediately.
CHERYL @CHERYLDANCE CHERYL is a four-member, semi-anonymous, often cat-masked artist collective based in Brooklyn that throws life-ending dance parties.
@JonesthePoet Gary Jones BBQ operator, poet, teacher, shaman, dog’s best friend, feeder of critters, seeker of truth, follow my poetry blog, it don’t cost nothin.
@Rick_Hewett Rick Hewett I run a press/picture agency. Other than that you’ll find me preparing trainee Vikings (my sons) for life or out running.
Andrew Czydel @AndrewCzydel Indie Author and Artist. To write is human, to edit divine and to sell is the work of foul creatures that inhabit dark places hence I self publish!
Roberto Greco @rogre Polysomething-or-other
Matt Jacobs @mattjacobs5 Director of Integrated Marketing at AMP Agency. Hoping all of my 140 characters get offered spin-off TV shows.
Kevin Schummer @kevinschummer There is no correct answer, just my answer.
Patricia Verdolino @BRANDQBORO Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. – Rumi
Peter Zapf @fogpilot
Mary Wynne Wynter @mwyn Paradox Huntress. Flower Whisperer. Certified by The Field. Self-wired for Intimacy. Poised for Matriarchy Rising. I Row. I Tango.
Moury Minhaz @MouryM I will do almost anything for a good laugh. I like sarcasm, I have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a side of slice and dice.
A.J. Somerset @ajsomerset Blurter of obnoxious things. Novelist (Combat Camera). Sometime outdoor writer. Sometime photographer. Shooter of clay targets. Washer of dishes. I do it all.
Mark Holden @holdenmw Explorer, wanderer, philosopher, philanderer, creative, mystic, entrepreneur, digital native, speculator, adventurer, dreamer. Over-claimer.
Gavin Donovan Social Media guy @RegusUSA, @Arsenal fan and the greatest wedding dancer of all time. Tweets are my own.
Eric Soderlund @equalitytime Post-Mormon Pastafarian Secular Humanist Music-Loving Pontificating Sports Fan
Katie Guiney @KTG4 gangly, gregarious girl whose ga-ga about alliteration, audrey, art, books, music, marketing, newfoundland, roger ebert, rom-coms, and the three L’s.
LorettaLightningbolt @LorettaLB Just another singer/songwriter and promotion/ marketing manager, fighting evil with her cat. @michalegraves @stellarcorpses
Charlotte Hillenbrand @crashtherocks One of the Many @madebymany; 70% cocoa solids: 30% mum
Cindy Gallop @cindygallop I like to blow shit up. I am the Michael Bay of business.
Sean McGarry Baltimore; Charleston Expat; Georgia Bulldog; ENTP; Gentleman Scholar; Semi Colon Aficionado.
Jeremiah Orosco Runner, Gambler, Ultimate Piggie, Money Activator, Part-time Lion Tamer. Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.
Nick Maschmeyer @636e6d Digital Strategist at Droga 5. Will endorse any product.
Jenn @ONoesUDidnt Currently at that awkward stage between birth and death.
Eszter Fehér @efeher Local foreigner, marketer, namer, linguister, blogger… Hungarian.
Sara McDonald @Serifm8 I would kill for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Emily Balcetis A friend is someone who will help you move. A real friend is someone who will help you move a body. pinterest
Martin Weigel @mweigel thief | charlatan | pedant | contrarian | sceptic | amateur | plagiarist | meddler | Head of Planning, Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam http://t.co/wzxRigOnYs
LL COOL J @llcoolj. Still learning. Queens, NY.
Scott Lachut @scottlachut Director of Consulting @PSFK. After hours Blue Collar Bon Vivant with these dreams inside my head. I’d rather share them with you.
Natarajan Lalgudi @NatarajanL Cranially ambidextrous & experientially versatile, equally passionate about social anthropology & applied math, equally excited by cricket stats & great food
Andrew Pieterick @APieterick Student at Wisconsin. Sometimes offensive, mostly ridiculous, always unnecessary.
And the Minerva goes to:
Philippa Dunjay @PhilippaDunjay
likes short walks on the beach before getting out of breath, complaining about all the sand, why is the water so salty, did you just step on a hermit crab?
All others, please consider yourselves honorably mentioned.
Apparently, I’m not good at this.
I present for your delectation and criticism the document I send to several people in the marketing world.
You, reader, have several assignments.
1) Please let me know what I did wrong with this pitch.
2) If you like the sound of this project, please come make a contribution at Indiegogo.
I am on the Visioning Board of the Boston Book Festival, and they are working on a project I’d like you to participate in. I think there is a marketing/sponsorship opportunity here, but see what you think.
The Boston Book Festival (BBF) is calling the project
Guerrilla Storytelling Flash Lit. To celebrate the Festival (in October), BBF wants to send actors into Boston bars undercover. The idea is that the actors will be indistinguishable at first from every other patron at the bar, but eventually two actors will raise their voices ever so gradually as they play out a famous scene from a novel, play or movie. Eventually, their voices will subside and things will return to normal.
It’s a little like a smart mob, only more literary, or at least more talkative.
The idea is to win exposure for the Festival, to make literary creativity visible outside the halls of the Festival, in a sense to return some of the creativity invented in bars to the place they got started.
The Festival will use several bars, some upscale and downtown, others downscale and around town.
I think this event works best as a subtle marketing play for the Boston Book Festival and its sponsors. The idea is to make the event come and go like a mirage. So no big posters or public declarations. Everything works by word of mouth. People planted in the crowd and the bartender will be standing by to help explain that they think “this has something to do with the Boston Book Festival and [sponsor’s name here].”
I like the
guerrilla storytelling Flash Lit project for a lot of reasons. It’s is a pretty spectacular reinvention of the commercial message, and a dandy way for a brand to enter the life of the consumer. It helps “re-enchant the world” to use Max Weber’s language. It’s an exercise in “experiential marketing” to use Joseph Pine’s phrase. It is a way to generate word of mouth and to participation in the new “conversation” that is marketing (Cluetrain Manifesto). It’s also a chance for the brand to be part of the new great wave of interest in storytelling that we’re seeing everywhere in the marketing world. In short, Guerrilla Storytelling Flash Lit feels like an opp with some oomph. It’s a way to make the brand vivid in the life of the consumer and the culture.
Our assumption here is that everyone who has been present for one of these events will have to talk about it. And tell their friends. Finally a meme that really does act like a virus! The less the event is explained, the more speculation will follow. The more eager will be the buzz.
Given its breadth and sophistication, it feels like [Eric's firm] is a natural partner for this experiment. And I wanted to see if indeed you think [Eric's firm] might want a first crack at sponsorship.)
There are three faces to the value being created here.
First, this investment can be justified and perhaps written off as a philanthropic gesture.
Second, it can be justified for the publicity. (Details below.)
Third, this is marketing history in the making. (I will be in place over the week the storytelling happens, in as many of the venues as I can get to, and I am happy to write this up the experiment, gratis. If you can make it to Boston, we can do this work together)
I believe this is one of the futures of branding. I think we can imagine a time when spirits brands routinely sponsor public events of this kind, bring new life to pubs and bars, a new heightened expectation of “what’s going to happen tonight.” Spirits have been selling the “excitement,” “enchantment,” “magic” of night life for a very long time. This reactivates and reinvents the claim.
I think there is a big “first mover” advantage to be had here for the brand that sponsors this event. To be a partner in the birth of this kind of marketing, to get the early learnings, to stake out this ground, must I think deliver big benefits.
1. What are your thoughts on the project?
2. Do you think [your firm] might want to be involved?
3. To whom should I direct the pitch?
The participation fee is modest, around $30,000.
Anyhow, I would love to hear your thoughts and if you think [your firm] might be interested, I’d be grateful for the name of the person I can pitch.
A description of the Boston Book Festival
The Boston Book Festival celebrates the power of words to stimulate, agitate, unite, delight and inspire. In 2012, the Boston Book Festival brought over 25,000 people to Copley Square to enjoy a day packed with presentations by such luminaries as the Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, Pulitzer Prize winners Junot Diaz and Richard Ford, and nearly 150 other world-renowned authors and thought leaders as well as a street fair, live music, workshops, open mic, Writer Idol, and kids’ sessions and activities. Publishers Weekly called the Boston Book Festival “one of the best in the country” after its second year.
A description of additional benefits of sponsorship.
• Full-page ad in 10,000 Festival Program Guides
• Logo on all print advertisements (2 million+ reach)
• Logo on 200 MBTA subway cards
• Logo on 10 MBTA subway platform posters
• Acknowledgment in 8–10 radio spots on WBUR
• Acknowledgment in 8–10 radio spots on WBZ, WODS, WBMX
LOGO PLACEMENT/NAME MENTIONS
• Logo on 10’ x 14’ banner on façade of Boston Public Library
• Logo and link placement on BBF homepage (54,000 visitors in October 2012)
• Logo featured on 1000 promotional posters distributed throughout New England
• Name mention in all BBF-generated press releases and wherever sponsored events are listed
• Name/website link on 4 email blasts to BBF list (5,000+ members)
• 6 tweets to our 6500 followers with name mentions and 2 day-of tweets driving traffic to booth
• 2 Facebook posts with name mention
• 12 invitations to exclusive cocktail party with BBF authors/presenters Friday night before BBF
• 4 VIP All-Day Access Passes (preferred seating at all events, all day long)
• 6 VIP Single Event Passes (preferred seating at one event)
Daniel Jones of the Boston Book Festival is the creator of Flash Lit and the Indiegogo website. The image I have used above is taken from the video on the Indiegogo website and shows Adrienne Chamberlin. This video was created by John Lavall and Kate Kelley of Delvo Media. Thanks to Shanae Burch and Tyler Catanella for their performance of a passage from Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
So you have a laboratory. You know a lot about contemporary culture. It’s time to move beyond the kitten video and create something more interesting, more provocative.
One of your options is what we will call the alchemical combination. This trick here is to take disparate pieces of culture and bring them together. The right combo and blammo. You have made culture out of culture.
Here’s a naturally-occurring piece of alchemy reported this morning on MTV. At an award show, Ray Dalton and Richard Simmons sang for a moment on camera. Ray Dalton is a young singer from Seattle. He was featured recently in a Macklemore video. His star is rising. Richard Simmons…um, well, we’re not sure what to say about Richard Simmons. Dance diet diva, perhaps?
These guys spent no more than a couple of seconds singing together and there were hundreds, actually thousands of tiny interactions at this award ceremony, but it is this one that got reported this morning on MTV. And not because there was a category on the Top 20 show this morning. But because there wasn’t.
In effect, Ray and Richard had forced their way out of the crush of all those other celebrities into the media coverage. Because there was something so…what?…about this combination. It’s precisely when you can’t quite say that the media feels it must.
Bring these two guys together and something happens in our heads. You get a little rush of vertigo. It looks as if we are looking at an act of photomontage where Ray and Richard have been edited in to the same frame. Because, well, it just feels like they come from different worlds. And we are not talking about differences of age and race, but because well this guys are so far apart in our culture, it’s hard to think about them at the same time.
We are a culture that produces lots of diversity. Here’s a little list I put together for Chief Culture Officer in 2008:
Synchronized swimming, Target, Simon Cowell, Facebook, Bryan Singer, Chinese Soft Drinks, Grammys, SNL, YouTube, Gucci, Wikipedia, Jeff Koons, Apple, Kanye West, Hulu, Francis Bacon, SxSW, Mizrahi, TypePad, Heath Ledger, Nike, Dexter, Karim Rasheed, Agent Dinozzo, Manolo Blahnik, Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, LilWayne, Coen Bothers, Heroes, Hollywood Hills, Tina Fey, Reality TV, Chuck, Frank Ghery, Claire Bennet, Friendfeed, mashable, Thievery Corporation, Twitter, tagging, Henry Jenkins, Milton Glaser, Monk, LastFM, Second Life, Cherry Chapstick, Hannah Montana, Panic At The Disco, Design, Watch Men, iPhone, Xbox, Shoe Gazy, Andy Samberg, Joss Whedon, Ellen, Anime, hip hop, Ollie, Rolling, Cut And Paste, Entertainment Weekly, Matador Records, Tim Gunn, Yahoo, Damien Hurst, Audrey Hepburn, IDEO, Ashton Kutcher, Twilight, synchronous, SMS, Bollywood, Mickey Rourke, Christopher Guest, Ownage, MMORPG, Rastaman, Red vs Blue. (pp. 54-55)
How does one culture produce this much difference? Well, never mind that now. Lucky for us but it does. And the fact that it does open up these alchemical opportunities we were talking about.
We could almost take any two…and stand back. Simon Cowell and Bryan Singer. Jeff Koons and Kanye West. Second Life and Manolo Blahnik. Entertaining both elements in the same thought is hard. Giving a crisp account of both elements (to a visiting Martian, say) would take effortful acts of exposition. (It’s also interesting to note that we are not just various but dynamic. At least 1/4 of these elements are courting obscurity, especially Ashton Kutcher who surely will not survive his disastrous miscasting as Steve Jobs.)
Mickey Rourke, Christopher Guest. It makes my head hurt. Have a go. Make culture out of culture by creating a little short circuit, collapsing the distance between one this and that other that. In a perfect world, life will imitate art, and in a celebrity hungry culture, the two parties will find one another and cameras will roll. It’s not just alchemists who like to culture out of culture.
For more on how to make culture, see my book Culturematic, by clicking HERE.
As someone interested in the state of contemporary culture, I’m on the look out for evidence that things are changing…or at least that precedents have been established and long standing rules are no longer inviolable.
So I love this passage from AN ESSAY by Andrew Romano in The Daily Beast.
“Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades,” says Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan. “When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?” So Gilligan designed Breaking Bad to transform its hero into a villain—or, as he put it in his early pitch meetings, “Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
This breaks the contract that TV once fashioned with the viewer, that heroes were enchanted and protected from harm. (The hero in Castle is always in harm’s way but will never come to grief.) To visit a world in which heroes could go “all Walter,” we were obliged to abandon popular culture for art and literature. (And no one wanted to go there.)
It’s also worth pointing out that as TV gets better, so does the criticism. See this essay by Romano and the Chuck Klosterman’s GRANTLAND TREATMENT of Breaking Bad which explores Walter’s transformation with real intelligence and touch.
The trouble with Klosterman, for me, is that he works fearlessly, making a point, and then making all subsequent points depend on it. There’s no modularity. He doesn’t seal off sections of the argument. He could care less about damage control. He just keeps building and in no time, it’s all or nothing. Naturally, many of the points are so good and so original that this carries the argument. But in fact argument is shot through with discontinuities. It has broken down and what we get (and like) is a kind of serialized illumination. But, hey, I wish I wrote this badly.
Tom Asacker for pointing out the essay and the passage.
In the World’s Fair, they are observation towers. In the film and books, they become alien spacecraft.
To use my parochial language, this makes them “culturematics” and that’s because they repurpose culture and change the meanings of one thing (towers) into another (spacecraft).
Men in Black is filled with repurposing of this kind. My other favorite: turning bad, incredible newspapers into a one of the few sources of information the MiB take seriously.
Ok, a third. A creature arrives from outer space and demands a weapon from an earthling farmer. This scene turns the warning “you may have my weapon when you pry it out of my cold, dead hand” into a negotiating position that the alien takes literally and accepts. “That arrangement is satisfactory.”
You get the little jolt when something in your head changes meaning in this way. Good metaphors always have that effect. I get a little vertigo. ”Wait, those meanings that belong there don’t really belong there!?! Oh, ok, they do. Very well. Carry on.” (I am not saying all metaphors are culturematics. Because most metaphors are not experimental.)
The answer to the mystery of this meaning relocation may lie in the book I took to read on the plane: The Power of Impossible Thinking. I am not crazy about the title (a little too Norman Vincent Peale for me) but I love the contents. It’s by Jerry Wind and Colin Crook, both at the Wharton School. I know Jerry a little and like him a lot which makes especially irksome the fact that I missed this book when it came out in 2006 and found it only literally a couple of weeks ago.
Power of Impossible Thinking argues that there is no real world, an assertion sure to warm an anthropologist’s heart. What there are the models in our heads that help form what we see in the world. So there is no economic action, no managerial initiative, no strategy, no insight, no decision, that is unshaped by the models, or as I would prefer, the meanings in our heads.
When an artist like Lowell Cunningham or a film maker like Barry Sonnenfeld reaches into your heads and reworks that World’s Fair observation towers, they have changed the meaning (or the model) in our heads. And this is one of the reasons we write comix and go to movies, for the frisson of meaning (model) relocation, prefigurement, reconfigurement….whatever you call it. We like that.
This makes especially puzzling the fact that when we are all “large and in charge” and working for an organization of some kind, we don’t like to hear about meanings or models. We look at a book like Chief Culture Officer or The Power of Impossible Thinking and go, “no, really, is this quite necessary? I don’t think so.”
So I admire that Jerry and Crook took this on. It is a very tough sell. Meanings and models are a little like the dark energy of enterprise world. Yes, it’s out there but frankly managers don’t know exactly what it is, how to think about it, or what to do about it. And talking about it just makes heads hurt. This makes getting meaning or models into decision making and managerial discourse is ever so difficult!
Worse than that, I think people in their enterprise modality think of themselves having a “swift self.” (This was an idea that came out of research I did for a book called Transformations. More detail there.) People in enterprise mode see themselves as being aerodynamic, the better, the quicker to assimilate data, make decisions, and act. They love this swift self. It’s a thrilling way to be. But they often find that it eventually hollows them out, estranging them from family, friends, and other aspects of the self. Still, it’s great fun while the party lasts. In this swift self modality, the individual is formidably capable, forging a smarter, clearer path to market share, say, or the creation of potable water in the Third World.
My favorite example of the swift self is Khalil Younes, a young man I got to know when consulting in Atlanta. He was equal parts French, Lebanese and Harvard Business School and in his elegant, formidable way simply stared at problems til they dissolved into solution(s).
Here’s the problem. In the swift self modality, people see themselves as a creature who cuts through the ideas and confusions that stand between themselves and satisfactory outcomes. What Jerry and I call meanings and models, they think of things they are supposed to cut right through. In their world, meanings and models are the things that get in the way. As a swift self, Khalil is reason. He is Occam.
When Jerry and I ask Khalil to look at the meanings and models that mediate between the understandings and the world, it may well sound as if we are insisting on the impairment of this swiftness.
I think it’s likely for the swift self to reply with something like “Look, I have managed to be capable without entertaining the meanings or models you claim are active here, what are the chances this knowledge will make a difference? On balance, I’m guessing it is more likely to interfere, taking more than it gives.”
This is not a bad argument until we get to the meat of the argument that Jerry and I are making and that is that the world is getting faster, more confusing and less scrutable. And in circumstances like these, it makes sense to look hard at the meanings and models we use as instruments of apprehension…because when we don’t do this, we often can’t see the opportunities or the dangers now at hand.
Anyhow, I have just started the book and I will report back when I know more. At a minimum, I think those who are Chief Culture Officers (or fellow travelers) might look to The Power of Impossible Thinking as another and perhaps a better way of communicating cultural understanding into the organization. ”Mental models” does sound a little less obscure than “meanings” and even this would be an improvement. This might make a good Google Plus hang out at some point. Anyhow, more to come. I want to get this posted before I run out of internet service on board.
(Filed from 32,000 feet somewhere on the way to Austin.)
I’ve spent the summer writing and I’m impressed with how diverse writing is as an experience.
Sometimes, it’s like being the captain of ship. You are in charge. You have navigational information. You have logged a plan and you are sticking to it.
Sometimes, writing is like being a passenger on the upper berths. Someone else is making the decisions but the passage is pleasant, arrival is assured.
Sometimes, writing is like being a passenger on the lower berths. Much less pleasant, but, hey, eventually Lady Liberty will come shining into view and we’ll be off this f***ing ship.
Sometimes writing is clinging to a piece of wreckage in high waves. You are cold, frightened and disoriented. Arrival is out of the question. Perishing at sea is not.
Sometimes, writing is like standing on a god forsaken island, scrutinizing an empty horizon. No one is coming. You are good and lost. Your only companion is Wilson, a painted volleyball, and it turns out he has no ideas. Well, a few. But frankly, he doesn’t get the whole anthropology thing.
It turns out that the number one cause of shipwreck is a creature called, in my case, the Kraken (pictured).
Grant McCracken sticks to is knitting. He writes all day, every day, as hard as he can. The Kraken likes to go stand in front of an open fridge. That 5 watt bulb is his idea of illumination.
McCracken files a navigational plan and sticks to it. The Kraken likes to go inking off in all directions. I swear to got he has the attention span of a house plant, and now that he has access to YouTube, well…, hey, have you seen this kitten video.
McCracken is trying his hardest to build a couple of useful ideas. The Kraken prefers to wreck havoc on marine traffic. He’s never met an idea he didn’t want to pull into a watery grave.
I am please to report that on this day of our Lord, August 19, 2013, I have made 22,968 words of progress. But I am also obliged to tell you that the Kraken lies in wait.
I live in a little Connecticut town called Rowayton. We were briefly the Oyster capital of the world. We also played midwife to the first business computer.
But nothing much has happened in the last 50 years.
We have a talent in our midst. And that talent is turning our train station into an art gallery.
Here’s what I found a couple of days ago while waiting for my train to NYC.
Here’s a closer view.
It’s corny to say so, but it made me think of this Da Vinci self portrait.
I don’t know if these photos tell the story, but this image has been placed on the platform by a process of dripping / pouring that deprives the artist of absolute control. Its a technique that forces a loose hand working in a single session. Virtuosity gives vivacity. The face that comes up out of concrete (of all things). A knowing, unforgiving, bird-of-prey gaze.
And it commandeers a handy thought bubble: “mind the gap.” What, you mean the artistic life of little Rowayton? Consider it minded! Occupied and then some.
Several months ago, when the dreadful Donald Trump was everywhere on screen and in print. This image appeared on an ad in the station.
The artist removed Trump’s photographed face and inserted a Dorian Gray revelation of the man within. Porcine Donald. And what a pig he is.
Someone with artistic detective skills might be able to determine whether Mind the Gap comes from the same hand as Dorian Donald. And, as you can guess, I am really hoping it does. And not just because it would be wonderful to think that someone has turned our train station into an art gallery.
It’s all very Culturematic so naturally I’m thrilled. But, look, I’d be thrilled in any case. I spend some part of the spring talking to Peter Spear and Rainer Judd about a project that would encourage the eruption of art in small town America and here someone drops this under my very nose.
It is a Culturematic because it converts a train station into an art gallery. Culturematics are almost always opportunistic and cunning in this way. But it also turns our train system, Metro North, into a delivery system for art lovers everywhere. As long as someone can find the line, they can count on effortless and precise delivery!
Let me know you’re coming and I will put on my docent costume and meet you there. Gallery station memberships are reasonable so don’t forget your credit card!
Who, we wonder, is the author of this wonderful laugh-out-loud bit of book reviewing:
“In quiet moments, Cochrane plays Bach on his lute and whips up pheasant casserole with shallots and Calvados. But mostly he spends his time gunning down enemies in a taut and well-told tale that ricochets across Europe.”
And who is responsible for this:
“The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” follows the urban misadventures of Nate, an ambitious writer with a book deal, a full head of hair and an impressive capacity for self-forgiveness.”
Please could we have a open-secret website somewhere that reveals who’s written what?
Both reviews appear in the edition of The Economist pictured (Volume 408, Number 8846; July 27th – August 2nd, 2013), pages 70 and 69 respectively.
I just downloaded the new book by Brett Martin. It gives an insider’s view of how cable transformed television with shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield. (This transformation matters to an anthropologist because as TV goes so goes American culture.)
In particular, this is the story of “difficult men” like David Chase, David Simon, Ed Burns, Matthew Weiner, David Milch and Alan Ball. The implication is that it takes some unholy alliance of the cantankerous and a deep, enduring oddity to foment a revolution of this order.
As the publisher puts it on Amazon, these men gave us shows that gave us
“narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition. No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom.”
Well, that and better television. Way better television. Helmut Minnow’s “wasteland” is now producing something remarkable, and several intellectuals (below) owe us an apology.
But Martin’s book raises a question. Some of the new TV is being written and produced by women. Ann Biderman gave us Southland and most recently Ray Donovan. Shonda Rhimes isn’t “cable” but with shows like Scandal she takes advantage of (and pushes) the creative liberties the cable revolution makes possible. And then there is Bonnie Hammer now consumed, one guesses, by administrative responsibilities but in her day a creative force to be reckoned with. There are many others, I’m sure. (My memory stack holds three and no more.)
We need a companion piece, a gendered view. We need a look at the revolution in TV and American culture driven by the rest of the industry. There may be absolutely no difference between male and female creatives in this industry. And that would be a fantastic finding. Yes, but what are the chances. Almost surely there are tons of differences. And they await the young writer prepared to dive in and phone home.
Ewen, Stuart. 1976. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Fussell, Paul. 1991. Bad, or the Dumbing of America. New York: Summit Books.
Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1967. The New Industrial State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Klein, Naomi. 2000. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Picador.
Leavis, F. R. 1930. Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture. Cambridge: The Minority Press.
Minow, Newton. 1961. “Television and the Public Interest: An Address to the National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, D.C.” American Rhetoric. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/newtonminow.htm (September 27, 2010).
Postman, Neil. 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness. New York: Penguin.
Seabrook, John. 2001. Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture. Vintage.
Sennett, Richard. 1978. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Vintage Books.
Trow, George W.S. 1997. Within the Context of No Context. Atlantic Monthly Press.
The Counter Argument may be found here:
Carey, John. 2002. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Academy Chicago Publishers.
Johnson, Steven. 2005. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. Riverhead Books.
Nussbaum, Emily. 2009. “Emily Nussbaum on When TV Became Art: Good-bye Boob Tube, Hello Brain Food.” New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/arts/all/aughts/62513/ (August 7, 2010).
Poniewozik, James. 2003. “Why Reality TV Is Good for Us.” Time. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,421047-1,00.html (August 1, 2010).
Steinberg, Brian. 2010. “TV Crime Does Pay — the More Complex the Better.” Advertising Age. http://adage.com/mediaworks/article?article_id=147203 (November 23, 2010).