comics on culture on Charlie Rose

IMG_6204Yesterday, the Charlie Rose Show repeated interviews with comics Billy Eichner, Amy Pohler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Seth Meyers.

A couple of comments jumped out.

Matt Besser: “You don’t have to appeal to 30 million people anymore.”

Ian Roberts: [the stuff we do can be] “a little rougher, more radical, more experimental.”

So what does that mean for popular culture?

Samantha Bee has an answer (at least for Full Frontal):

“We just do the material that appeals to us, the sort of thing we want to see.”

Does this mark the beginning of the decline of TV as a mass medium? Is TV, at least comedy on TV, now the artist’s playground, a place where artists can satisfy their own creative agenda?

This would spell the end of that glassy, packaged, patronizing, anti-improvisational work that popular culture produced in the 1950s, the stuff that made comedy look like an airshow: “Here comes a joke, this is the joke, how great was that joke!”

But have we moved to the far extreme? Let’s call this the Samantha Bee extreme (hold all jokes to the end of the essay, please) where it’s all about the cultural producer, and no longer about the cultural consumer. At all. (There’s another possibility: that Ms. Bee has become tragically self indulgent, the Nic Pizzolatto of late night, and not long for that. I ignore this option.)

Seth Meyers had an answer. Audiences are getting smarter, he said. They have all the comedy ever recorded at their disposal on YouTube and they are “self educating.”

So, yes, apparently we are moving to the Samantha Bee extreme. Comedy producers and consumers are less different. They are growing closer. What a change this is! Comedians were once aliens who infiltrated the human community by manifesting on a standup stage, there to outrage and delight the sensibilities of people who really had no idea what comedy was or where it came from. Not now. Now more and more comedic producers and consumers make up one community.

This changes the comedian. She was once a tortured soul, torn between the popular success that came from “safe” comedy and the professional esteem that could only come from “daring” comedy. To use that airspace metaphor again (hold your applause to the end of the essay, please) comedy producers and consumers occupy the same airspace. The comics can just do better stunts.

It also changes the audience. They are no longer yokels at a country fair marveling at the ingenuity of these city slickers. (“Dang, how’d he do that!”) They are more likely to scrutinize the architecture of the joke, wondering if Samantha Bee “didn’t maybe put a little too much stress on the last word. I feel.” and then taking (or as Henry Jenkins would say, “poaching”) the joke for their own personal purposes, to make themselves funnier Saturday night at the bar.

This is all great news for some purposes. It’s good for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. It’s good for Comedy Central, Funny or Die, and Seeso. It’s good for aspiring comics. Most of all, it’s good for contemporary culture, which gets funnier the more producers and consumers drive one another onwards and upwards. Call this the Apollo Theater effect, where the audience is so discerning, it forces entertainers to raise their game. (But now of course the effect is reciprocal.)

But it’s not all great news.

As two comedic worlds close, two cultural worlds tear apart.

As comedy producers and consumers get ever chummier, they take their leave of a large group of fellow Americans. I say, “fellow,” but of course that’s the point. As comedy gets better and pulls away, these Americans are less “fellow.” There are now millions of Americans who couldn’t find the funny in an Upright Citizens Brigade’s routine if their lives depended on it. They can’t actually see the point of it. And there are few things quite as alienating as this. You look a fool. You feel a fool.

There are two choices when this happens. You can accuse yourself of being witless and wanting. Or you can attack the person who has threatened you with this judgement, and call them an elite bent on taking your culture away from you. The only way to escape the “fool” judgement is to turn it on someone else.

And that’s where politicians like Donald Trump come in. And not just Trump, but an entire industry of pundits, experts, talk show hosts, religious leaders and other politicians have seized upon the “culture wars” as an opportunity to fan the flames of unrest, to mobilize dissent, to coax dollars out of pockets.

That’s where we are. Driven by technological innovations and cultural ones, there is now a dynamic driving groups of Americans apart, destroying shared assumptions, and putting at risk the hope that an always heterogeneous America can remain, in the words of Alan Wolfe, one nation after all.

This is not an accusation. There’s no obvious enemy. And there’s no obvious answer. No party, ideology, or interest can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We may self correct. We may not. But chances are slim that this cultural divide will make no difference, not as long as certain interests keep hammering away at it.

But it is a confession. I wrote a book in the late 1980s called Plenitude in which I argued that the coming cultural diversity would be a good thing and that we would survive it without descending into a tower of babel or a world of conflicting assumptions. And now it’s beginning to look like I was wrong.

You can hear something tearing.

The Intrinsic Economy (why the Republicans must lose in the long term)

lady bugsThe shouting! The hyperbole! The balloons!

Thank God the political conventions are finally over. Cleveland, Philadelphia, and television can finally get back to normal.

But the ideological turbines continue to turn. The underlying ideas that drove the conventions do not fall silent but carry on. We harness them every 4 years. In the meantime, they get more powerful.

New ideas of incentive and reward

The only answer that really mattered in the 20th century, certainly the only one that counted as far as economics was concerned, were “extrinsic” rewards.

We worked in the world for “income.” Some people were lucky enough to get intrinsic benefits as well. Doctors got the satisfaction of saving lives. School teachers knew the reward of helping kids grow. Waiters got to wear a tuxedo off duty (Veblen’s “vicarious consumption”). Fitness instructors kept their weight down. The rest of us were paid more or less entirely in dollars, and the intrinsic benefits (if any) were neither here nor there. “Nice but not essential,” as the phrase had it.

Those who worked chiefly for intrinsic benefits were called “inspirational”…but only rarely did they actually inspire anyone to follow suit. They were called “selfless” but this rather implied that intrinsic rewards weren’t really rewards at all. (If they were, we would have said these people were not selfless but well compensated.) Those driven by intrinsic satisfactions were the odd ones out.

That’s changing. You could say that the artisanal tilt in our economy, whatever else it is (and it’s many things), is a shift from people working chiefly for the extrinsic benefits to people working for chiefly for intrinsic ones. Unless you are, say, the Mast brothers, you’re not making a fortune. You are doing it for the joy, the pleasure, the satisfaction. What matters is less what you “make” in the way of income and more what you make in the way of satisfactions.

Some people look askance at those who follow the old model and continue to prize extrinsic benefits. They call them opportunistic and “on the make.” This an irony of the artisanal economy: when you pursue rewards that have intrinsic value to you, you create rewards that are good for the community. Conversely, when you exert yourself to create goods and services for the conventional marketplace, you are seen as old regime, industrial, adulterated and otherwise anti-artisanal. The extrinsic “tribe” acts in the service of discredited consumer tastes and preferences. Fast food, dry cleaning, aluminum siding, that sort of thing. The intrinsic tribe is seen to be a vanguard, fashioning new ideas of economy and community.

This is a big change. Caring about the social good that comes from economic value, this used to be a distinctly minority enthusiasm. For most of us, it was something only contemplated in the tearful last moments of a Frank Capra movie. The rest of the time we were hard-charging, self-seeking individualists. If we are no longer this, but some other kind of creature, well, it’s hard to say how big a change this is.

The rise of an “intrinsic economy” makes for a shift in politics, too. It says that people are less interested in employment rates than the larger robustness of the community. They are asking for a world that employs “the whole of me,” not merely the individual as a skill set and a problem solver. They want to work for an organization (if they want to work for an organization) that says “give us the better, larger part of your selfhood,” and not the usual “please hang that complicated selfhood of yours at the door and let’s get down to business.”

We ask something new of our politicians. We move from “get me a job” to “help me build me a community.” The person we want as politician begins to look less like Mit and more like Hilary, and, eventually, less like Hilary and more like Bernie. The Republican idea has always been: “‘here’s a job in an economy. Let’s see how the rest of the world falls out.” Back to the drawing board for party strategists. When people care more about self fulfillment than status advancement, the Republican party is obliged to revamp. It will respond to this deeper trend in American culture or it will find itself on the wrong side of history.

I can hear several objections:

1) This is all about a weak economy. People care about intrinsic rewards merely because the extrinsic rewards are in short supply. (See an excellent article on this topic by Noreen Malone here.) I take this challenge seriously, and I am setting it aside for the moment.

2) The “artisanal thing” is the preoccupation of an elite group of chefs and patrons in high-end restaurants. This objection does have an answer. The extraordinary growth of Whole Foods tells us that we are no longer talking about a tiny elite inspired by Chez Panisse. And the recent declaration by WalMart that says that it will transition to organic food tells us that still later adopters are signing on. We are beginning to enter the middle of the diffusion curve.

3) The artisanal thing is an episodic trend. It will come and go. It flourished in the 1960s and 1970s and then it went away. It will go away again. Yes, agreed, this trend is episodic but it is also cumulative. Each time it comes back, it gets a little more powerful and a little better established. In this last iteration it leapt from food to the world of spirits (aka the mixology revolution) to the world of retail (the new ubiquity of farmer’s markets). It colonized neighborhoods, cities (Brooklyn, Detroit, Portland, Boulder, etc.) and entire generations. The “installed base” is growing.

The intrinsic economy is changing what we define “incentive” and “reward” and that changes what we want from our careers, our politicians and our parties. None of this is good for the Republican party.

New ideas of the individual: complementary parts or competitive wholes?

The conventional wisdom, well established as a social practice in the period following World War II, was that an individual was a whole unto him or herself. The individual was the unit of decision, the unit of initiative, the unit of membership. The individual was free standing. In the post-war period, there were sexist and ageist exceptions that said some women and all children were subsumed in a “family.” But otherwise the world was comprised of individuals.

In the classic view, individuals competing with one another for resources and the outcome of this competition would decide where they stood relative to one another in the larger social scheme of things. Advantages that came from beauty, grace, family, ethnicity, race, and education existed but, if acknowledged, they were seen to make an incremental difference. The real momentum came from effort and accomplishment.

Competition took place in several media. People competed especially with their consumer purchases. People weren’t so much “keeping up with the Jones” as trying to get ahead of them. They were claiming status by showing status. Successful efforts helped you rise. Bad performances made you fall. Claiming status in a consumer culture helped fashion status and your location in the status hierarchy.

The idea of the free standing individual is changing too. A certain sense of solidarity is emerging. There’s a growing sense that we’re “all in this together.” There’s a refusal to insist on one’s specialness, a disinclination to mark ourselves as special. Trump would have been a narcissist in any era, but he’s especially conspicuous now.

There are measures of this “solidarity reflex” everywhere. There is “norm core” clothing that refuses specialness. The wedding trend moves away from lavish and spectacular. We police social situations by objecting to the “humblebrag.” Luxury cars now engage in “just folks” advertising. A strange example came my way recently when I posted an essay called “Who will be our ethnographic hero?” I got a note from someone saying they would never wish to be seen as a hero.

Or consider this. Wikipedia is the work of 80,000 contributors. With the exception of cofounder Jimmy Wales, these people are unsung. I think it’s probably true that people in the 1950s would have found this anonymity intolerable. They would have preferred not to contribute than to be denied credit.

Perhaps the best measure is the extraordinary rise of social enterprise. Once there were only a couple of enterprises like Tom’s, the company that made shoes available to the Third world on a “one pair given for one pair sold” basis. Now there are thousands of enterprises that do this or something like it. These are not considered “acts of generosity”or “philanthropic gestures.” This is an simple part of the business model. Ask someone why their enterprise behaves this way, and at first they are surprised that you asked. The answer almost always returns to the idea that “it’s important to share” because “we are all in this together.”

This is a big change. We are a culture that invited individuals to individuate, to define themselves as separate, to mark themselves as different, to show themselves to be “special.” (And, please, let’s acknowledge there were always eddies of solidarity, chiefly family and home. And let’s acknowledge that individualism was always in several ways a myth we told ourselves about ourselves. Let’s also remember that exceptions prove the rule, and that myths make a real difference in the world.) If there is a feeling that individuals take as much or more of their meaning and direction from the fact that they are part of a larger social whole, something big has happened.

If we are no longer “free standing” but embedded in something larger, we have changed the way we think about our selves. Competition is diminished. Status matters less. Conspicuous consumption begins to look merely odd. Luxury goods look vulgar and overweening. The status hierarchy becomes the preoccupation of a few. In the unflinching gaze of the social scientist, we have always been embedded in a whole, less free standing that we wanted to think. But now Americans are catching up to the scientist. We see themselves as embedded too.

Summing up

To look for intrinsic benefits of a social kind and to define ourselves as parts of a social whole, these change what we want from politics and parties.

There is no evidence that Republicans are alert to either of these cultural changes. (To be fair, how would I know? I have no access to the Party’s internal contemplations.) Indeed these changes appear to have happened right under the noses of the Party. A few years ago, the party decided to pursue radio as an essential party organ and with the rise of people like Rush Limbaugh it succeeded. But the Party stood idly by as the ideas considered here crept into early childhood education and elementary school. And this much is probably indubitable: story time in the American kindergarden meant more to our present politics than the playing fields of Eton ever meant to the English ruling class.

But then the Republicans have always been a little tone deaf when it comes to culture. It believes that it was always about economics. Where the social and cultural matters appeared to matter, the idea seemed to be that bourgeois conventions of self definition and presentation should stand. (This might be why Fox newscasters all have the same hair style.) And otherwise, we could rely upon individuals to enter the marketplace in pursuit of extrinsic rewards which they would deploy for the purposes of hierarchical ascent in a status competition. At Republican HQ, the old model still pretty much prevails. At Republican HQ, it will always be 1956.

It’s a salutary lesson for us all. Drift this far out of the orbit of American culture and your days are numbered. But let’s not be smug about this. The Republican problem is pretty much everyone’s problem. Some version of it haunts nonprofit institutions like MET, the consumer packaged goods industry like Unilever, luxury automobiles like Mercedes, magazines like Vanity Fair. The intrinsic economy threatens a Tsunami-like disruption.

Thanks to Margarethe Brummermann here.

Who will be our ethnographic hero?

There is now only one path to the White House for Donald Trump. There has to be a Brexit-type surprise in November.

This is the hope of the Republican party faithful. When confronted with numbers that show Hilary in the lead and the refusal of their candidate to pivot to a more presidential presentation of self, this is what they say. There is massive support out there. We just can’t see it. Because conventional polling cannot pick it up. People are concealing their real intentions. Trump will win.

The only person outside the Republican tent I’ve heard make this argument is Megan Murphy of Bloomberg who last night on Charlie Rose said,

Putting this into the context of Brexit, [I wondered] ‘are we all getting this wrong?’ [Maybe] something much more profound and disruptive is going on… and this is going to be a moment when the establishment is broken. And not just the Republican establishment but establishment writ large. … Even we can’t step back and see the profound dislocation that’s going on.

Ethnographers consume this kind of problem for breakfast. The clipboard crew are obliged to take an answer at its face. But ethnographers live to dig. We are always looking for the world of meaning, the hidden assumptions, the basic thinking beneath the first reply. The clipboard crew has a box to check. We dig and dig and dig.

There is no hiding from an ethnographer. We can see inside your head and heart. We can tell what you’re really thinking. This is not interrogation. We don’t force you to tell. We just let you talk long enough until your lies begin to come apart, until their is a mountain of evidence about what you really think, whatever you just said to the pollster.

There is a HUGE opportunity for some ethnographer to make herself the hero of the moment. Someone who can talk to people who claimed “no opinion” and find the “shy” Trump supporters out there, the Trump supporter under deep cover. Spot them and map them, dear ethnographer, and, well, celebrity awaits you.

This is the stuff of which national reputations are made. Come up with this answer , and you become a national hero. To be the person who in late August says, “Trump will win. The ethnographic data tell us so. You may now adore me and don’t forget to consult me every Sunday morning forever and ever amen.” This could be the beginning of your Nate Silver ascension. And it wouldn’t it be grand to have a ethnographer who could do for qualitative data what Mr. Silver has done for quantitative data?

The problem is that we don’t always have the courage of our convictions. We are nervous nellies. I like to think that the reason that I don’t take on the challenge is that I have two projects on the go that are going to turn August and September into a forced march…but the truth is also that I am a nervous nelly.

This is a call the best and the bravest of the ethnographic world. A couple of names come to mind: Samantha Ladner, Steve Portigal, dana boyd, Patti Sunderland, German Dziebel, Ken Habarta, Panthea Lee, Jan Chipchase, David Art Wales, Peter Spear, Griffin Farley, Bob Morais, Carol Greenhouse, Phil Buehler, Jamie Gordon. (Apologies to those who are not on this list. This was totally top of mind.) People who are prepared to swing for the fences. Or maybe we are all of us nervous nellies. Who else can we turn to? Morgan Spurlock? Redscout?

Someone, please. If Trump is going to be the next president of the United States, we have to stop saying the thing that pundits have been saying for months now, “Oh, that can’t possibly happen and here’s why…” Because it could possibly happen. And if it does happen, we have to fire up our what-if machines and make ready for a very different world.

Who will be our hero?

[This post appeared first on Medium.]

Is music dead? (more evidence)

Here is Rich Cohen on Charlie Rose last night discussing his new book The Sun and the Moon and The Rolling Stones (with Jeff Glor sitting in for Mr. Rose.)

I quote Mr. Cohen as a follow up to the post I did on Medium called Is Music Dead? in which I asked whether music as a cultural force and an “identity forge” was in decline.

Here’s the way Mr. Cohen sees this development.

“I have a 12 year old son and I was driving with him listening to his music.

And it suddenly occurred to me, this music sucks.

That’s honestly what I thought.

And then I thought, ‘Wait a second, this is probably because I’m old. I’m an old guy.’

Let me do some research and see if I’m right.

And I realized it does kind of suck. That’s the way I thought about it.

And I thought about the way we thought about rock and roll when I was a kid, you would wait for the next record the way the way people now wait for the iPhone.

If it was the right record with the right songs, you had a good chance at having a pretty great summer.

The right record could change your life.

And at some point, that energy, not just of a great band here and there but of a whole movement that was heading somewhere, ended. It died.

And to me personally it ended when Kurt Cobain died.  I was working at Rolling Stone and it felt like the air went out of the balloon.

And I thought this thing that was so important, that was to us like a religion, it kinda died. And nobody has stepped back and told the whole story.”

Post script: Thanks to Charlie Rose for the interview portion excerpted here. This remains the intellectual property of Charlie Rose Inc. and is protected by copyright law.

 

Tinderbox: Building an ingenuity machine

2476581071_7a55c565ddSeveral weeks ago, Mark Bernstein announced the latest Tinderbox, the “tool for notes.”

I almost always sign up for these updates.

I almost always give the new edition a quick spin.

I almost always find myself thinking, “hmm.”

And that’s as close as I get to Tinderbox until the next edition rolls out.

This post is an attempt to figure out why the idea of Tinderbox continues to thrill me even when the reality never quite delivers. (I say this with all due respect to Mark. The problem, I’m sure, is mine.)

For me, the best description of Tinderbox comes from Naupaka Zimmerman who, when asked on Quora for a ‘simplest explanation,’ said this,

I think Tinderbox is most powerful for mapping ideas out of your mind and into something digital, especially when those ideas are not fully structured yet. If you have ideas and they are already all in order, you could use a simple text editor to make an outline, for example. Tinderbox is where to put thoughts when you don’t know where they go yet, or how they fit together. (my emphasis, full context here.)

This would make Tinderbox very valuable indeed. We live in an era that prizes innovation, that roils with dynamism. As a result, we are surrounded by ideas we struggle to identify and classify. We don’t “know where they go yet.” We can’t say “how they fit together.”

The app that helps us see where things “go” and how they “fit” would be useful. The app that suggest new categories and new combinations would be a very great gift.

Tinderbox does let me “pin” idea fragments. I can move them around. I can tag them. I can group them. I can look for new relationships.

But rarely does Tinderbox help me see the forest in the trees. So far it’s pretty much all just trees.

To put this in anthropological language, I want Tinderbox that gets me out of my categories. Categories are the units into which a culture identifies, distinguishes and organizes the world. They are the infrastructure of thought, if you want. They are the architecture of consciousness.

It is cultural categories that make the world look one way to an Ethiopian and another to a New Yorker. It’s categories that make the world look one way to someone from the upper east side and another to someone from Brooklyn. Think of categories as a grid. Hold up the Ethiopian grid and the world looks one way. Hold up the Brooklyn grid and it looks another. (Caveat lector: not a perfect metaphor.)

Categories are a big part of the box out of which everyone is constantly asking us to get. In this sense, categories are the enemy. They help us think, but they take us captive. To use the fashionable managerial lingo, categories are the reason we have such a hard time finding “blue oceans” and avoiding disruptions. They give sight and they take it away.

In a more perfect world, Tinderbox would enable us to escape our categorical, cultural schemes. It would take all those bits and pieces that we capture every day in the course of our excursions on line, and bring them into a series of relationships we have never seen before. This would really useful. New categories would form. New insights would swarm.

Think of this the way Granovetter thinks about networks. If I can be forgiven a too simple account of his interesting work on “the strength of weak ties,” Granovetter suggests that weak ties matter because they are the bridges across which novel information moves. (Strong ties are less likely to be this conduit because they exist between people who come from the same world and tend to know the same things.)

Granovetter is talking about social networks but his thinking applies, at least metaphorically, to information. Culture creates silos the way networks do. It puts like with like. That’s why we need “weak ties” here too. We need some way of bringing things from disparate categories together. Sometimes, the result will be unthinkable. But sometimes it will force a new category or a new reflection on a old category. This would make Tinderbox an ingenuity machine. As it is, Tinderbox has a way of encouraging my existing categories.

Steve Crandall has great stories about lunch time at Bell Labs. Someone would start talking, and a couple of people would slap their foreheads and run from the room. Ideas were leaping unbidden from one discipline to another. As it turns out, the only thing needed to provoke this “unofficial” transit of ideas was a lunch table.

The question is whether and how Tinderbox could serve as a lunch table. If only it would take the things I post to Ember, Evernote and Instagram and bring them together into novel, provocative, difficult, extra-categorical combination. If only it could promote new categories

As a completely non-rigorous test, I just reached into Ember and found three images sitting side by side. (I didn’t search. I just grabbed.) Images go into Ember in no particular order, so this “grab” is close to a random sort. (The overall category is “images that captured the attention of an anthropologist studying American culture” so it’s quite broad.)

Here’s are the 3 images I came up with.

screenshot-2016-02-29-at-1-05-02-pm-e1456780007526

First, this image from an Android ad. I love this campaign for the little phrase you see here. “Be together, not the same” is one of the best things produced by the advertising, branding world in a long while. (Hat’s off to Robert Wong, the Chief Creative Officer at Google Creative Labs who is the author of this line or at least present at its birth.) It captures where we are now as a social world. It asks for unity without a compromise of diversity.

Then I found this. Sitting, innocently, beside the Android clipping was this photo of a sculpture in Mexico City. It’s Diana, goddess of the hunt.

diana mexico city - Google Search

Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, Mexico CityI was in Mexico a couple of weeks ago and I kept driving past Diana here held high on Reforma boulevard as if by many streams of water. My Diana is the one from Ovid, the goddess who kills Actaeon for discovering her in the wild. He’s a mortal. She’s a goddess. He may not look upon her. (The part Ovid must have liked: Diana transforms Actaeon into a deer. He is hunted and killed by his hounds.) I assume the statue has its own significance for Mexico and Mexicans. I never did figure out what. (Some Mexicans, it turns out, aren’t sure either. The trouble may be that Diana is many creatures with many meanings.)

And then I got this.

About Madewell - Learn More About Madewell - Madewell

I clipped it from the Madewell website as an interesting glimpse of the way one brand seeks to speak to one group of consumers, women with a quite particular sensibility. (An anthropologist is always looking for things that capture a particular way of thinking about, in this case, clothing and gender.) This went first into amber and then into Ember.

So now we have three images. All somehow caught the interest of an anthropologist, but they are otherwise unrelated to one another. Our Tinderbox “sort” invites us to imagine how they could go together.

The most obvious category is feminism. The opening image gives us one statement of our diversity. The second and third give us evocations of things that both express and propel our feminism. Diana is a feminist hero. Madewell clothing is one way our culture now expresses femaleness for some people some of the time. The Android tag line asks us to remain one community even as we continue to refashion gender and multiply our social identities.

This pretend spin of the Tinderbox wheel is, well, kinda interesting. But the outcome, (“feminism,” roughly) succeeds mostly in confirming a cultural category in my head. It doesn’t help me escape it. The trick is to look a little deeper and with this I find myself wondering whether I have quite honored Diana’s contribution.

What else does Diana bring to the Tinderbox sort? We could think of her less as a feminist hero and more as a warning. Actaeon dares do something mortals are forbidden doing. Hmm. Is there some correlate of this in contemporary culture? Who is Diana now and what would she object to? I think for a moment and then wonder if cultural creatives (in the Richard Florida occupational category) dare to engage in behavior that was once forbidden.

Culture creatives spend their lives trying to study, scrutinize, analyze, shape and reshape culture. We dare make and remake culture as if this were absolutely our right. And this is a marker of the world we’ve become, that we see culture as something that designers, anthropologists, writers, showrunners, studio executives, planners, strategists, app makers, software engineers, cultural creatives of every kind are entitled to have at. We even presume to give advice of every kind. (“Be together, not the same.”) We make free with culture and we make culture freely.

And it never occurs to us that this is daring behavior but I think there’s a good chance the practice makes us the odd ones out in the larger human story. I think a Victorian member of the middle class would have been astounded by our presumption. Culture was for admiring. It was for mastering. It wasn’t not for making, not at least by ordinary people. Poets, scholars, artists, yes. The rest of us, no. I think it’s unlikely that Roman centurion stationed in Gaul ended a grueling day building roads by composing fan fic versions of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. We don’t see that we engage in acts of Actaeon-scale presumption, but perhaps we do. And that means punishment, even Diana-scale punishment, for crimes of this order may have seemed not entirely out of the question, at least as a poetic conceit. (I am of course not serious when I propose there is something forbidden about cultural creativity. I embrace the idea because it is in the immortal words of Stanley Tambiah “good to think.” More to the point, it is “fun to think.”)

And this gets us somewhere. My Tinderbox sort has invited me to see something I used to take for granted. It gives me an opportunity to see “cultural creatives” not as unexceptional actors but as a daring, even transgressive ones. (Another clarification is called for here. I’m not talking about feminism as something transgressive. As an anthropologist, feminism is something that has been in the works for several hundred years. I’m surprised it took this long to transform us and I believe there is no likelihood that we will ever repudiate it. Feminism is here to say, and thank heavens.)

But is “transgressive creativity” this anything more than an odd idea? (Is it something more than a fanciful notion to add to that great collection of ideas with which we furnish our interior work shops?) Is there someone who believes that cultural creatives are transgressive? Is there anyone who would, Diana-like, punish them for this behavior?

Not at first glance. But when you think about it, you could say this is almost exactly what fundamentalists think (and threaten). Fundamentalists feel themselves captive of a culture filled with godless, immoral, reckless departures from the work and will of God. And if they thought about it in a detailed way (and for all I know some of them do) they would identify cultural creatives as precisely the people who are responsible for this systematic godlessness.

Hm. So is that it? Well, no. This Tinderboxian revelation leaves me with a problem…and a responsibility, even.

This is the place to ask ourselves whether any of us on the cultural creative side ever think to reach out to fundamentalists and encourage them to see the system, the genius, the good intentions of cultural creativity. I think the inclination of the cultural creative is to scorn fundamentalists as monstrously unsophisticated philistines “who just don’t get it (i.e., me).” But this is really not very empathic, or sophisticated, or cosmopolitan. It fails to see that, whether we like it or not, fundamentalists have a particular case to make. Most obviously, the “scorn” strategy destroys any hope of a rapprochement. If we cultural creatives really were liberal, they might be prepared to grasp the problem and commit to a solution. Scorn seems a little easy, a little glib.

The first order of business? Cultural creatives might want to demonstrate to fundamentalists that being “not the same” is not in fact a real threat to our ability to “be together.”

The second order of business? Cultural creatives might want to see if they can demonstrate to fundamentalists that the fluidity, complexity and multiplicity of our cultural categories is NOT evidence that all hell has broken lose and that we are headed for moral collapse. We need to demonstrate (if we can and I think we can) that the fluidity, complexity and multiplicity of our categories is another way of being a culture. It is another source for order.

One case in point here: gender categories. These categories were once quite clear. Men and women were frequently defined as mutually exclusive categories. In my (boomer) generation, men who displayed any female characteristics lost their claim to their masculinity. Gender (read “category”) conformity was policed with a terrible vigilance. Gender (read “category”) betrayal was punished savagely. Ours was a culture that terrorized people who did not honor their category into which conventional thinking (read “categorization”) had put them.

Gender categories have been rescued from this polarity. It’s no longer male / female. It’s now many kinds of maleness and femaleness, and lots of gender activity is substantially reinventing the possibilities. This transformation of the categories comes from many sources: Stonewall riots, feminism, the movies of Judd Apatow, TVs shows like Orange is the New Black, the LGBT movements. There are many forges for gender now.

To reach out to fundamentalists, this is to say, we will have to tell a historical, literary, anthropological story.

But let’s begin by giving fundamentalists their due. If you don’t have any way of thinking about gender categories except the conventional ones, it does rather look as if all hell has broken lose. We may scorn fundamentalists but from their point of view, chaos is upon us. From their point of view, sounding the alarm is the only sensible thing to do. Let’s be anthropological enough to grant that people are entitled to see the world as they do. And unless someone makes the argument to the contrary, they are entitled to revert to the traditional idea that only way to “be together” is to “be the same.” (And an Android ad is not enough to “bring them around.” Though frankly one of the reason I love this ad so much is that it does help, if only a tiny bit.)

So it’s up to us to make the anti-chaos case: that order can and does emerges from categories that are fluid, multiple and complex, that we can “be together” even when not the same.

Anyhow, whew! I can’t say this is a perfect exercise in ingenuity but my Tinderbox sort did help me think outside the categories that normally govern my thought. And this must be part of the reason why the idea of Tinderbox is so appealing. Imagine a software that helped us capture and combine notes in ways that can sometimes prove to be provocative of new categories.

Remaking the Museum for the 21st century

reviewLogoBlock-1Several months ago, Robert Fogarty asked if I wanted to contribute something to a special issue of The Antioch Review called “The Future of Museums.”

I did! It’s been years since I worked at the Royal Ontario Museum and this was my opportunity to see if anything I’d learned in my career as a consulting anthropologist might serve as a way to think about the future of these precious but challenged institutions.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the essay. (The full text may be found in the issue now on the stands [Vol. 74, No. 2, Spring 2016]. You should be able to buy the issue here soon.)

Remaking the Museum for the 21st Century: A Hakluytian opportunity
Grant McCracken

When I became the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, I was a young man and naïve on virtually every count. I see that now.

If anything could save me, it was that I was recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology. This program acted on its graduates like a seminary or a yeshiva. We entered the world with our eyes on fire. I thought I knew exactly what I was doing and, more particularly, what to do. My task, as I saw it, was to make North American culture course through the museum. It was to capture the contemporary world in archives and exhibits.

This was not quite the way the museum saw my task. The Institute (ICC) was an expedient designed to address the Museum’s (ROM) most pressing problem. The membership was dying. The average age was 60-something. Once a great center of life in Toronto and Canada, the ROM needed institutional rescue. Broaden the audience, that was the thing. But broaden the idea of culture? If you must, but really, on second thought, please don’t. The ROM was as ambivalent as I was naïve.

In the intervening 25 years, my career has taken me out of the museum and then out of the academic world altogether. This essay represents an elliptical return, a fly-by that enables me to bring things learned in the “deep space” of the consulting world to bear on the museum world that has in some ways always remained my sun.

The news from this perspective is both grim and heartening. Let’s start with grim.

My argument is that some museums might wish to turn their powers of observation on the future. They could make themselves a little like Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt (1552-1616, pronounced “hak-loot” and “hak-light”) was an Elizabethan chaplain, a private secretary, and a deeply curious man who applied himself to a particular task: knowing everything one could know about the new world and how to get there.

Here’s the nub, or a nub, of the essay:

And this is where the museum comes in. The museum could make itself a center for gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. It could be the place people go to see the future and more specifically their organization’s future. It could build a system of knowledge about the future where others are now “spectacularly casual.” The museum has a Hakluytian opportunity.

Making systems of knowledge is the museum’s traditional brief. To be sure, the Hakluytian system doesn’t look much like the Victorian one. But then the Victorian mandate is well in hand. Our knowledge of natural history, while incomplete, is extensive and intensive. So is our grasp of human cultures and especially their material cultures. I don’t believe the museum world has ever identified these as the only systems of knowledge that matter. We could embrace a post-Victorian mandate and go a step forward. Two steps actually. The first of these is to build a systematic understanding of contemporary culture. The second is to make a window on possible futures, staffed by smart people and furnished with good ideas.

Why Anthropologists Don’t Whisper Well

CEOs should hire anthropologists. After all, these CEOS speak to a complex set of stakeholders. How useful to have someone, an expert, whispering in their ear.

But it turns out that anthropologists are bad at whispering. Why?

It’s a distinguished art, this whispering is. Early modern courtiers and counsellors made a fine art of it. For a scholarship boy, for whom status and power always belonged to someone else, whispering was a way to rise in the world. Get the ear of the monarch, or someone close to her. Direct the hand that directs the state. Make the monarch your agent, perhaps even your puppet. Hey presto, you could be a monarch in disguise.

This is standard stuff, documented and disseminated by that proto-anthropologist Baldassare Castiglione. Call it ‘whispering for power and profit.’ Good for the counsellor and good for the monarch so “puppetfied.” Good in any case for the state. (Anything’s better, usually, than a monarch left to her own devices.)

The art of whispering flourishes in the present day. Every diplomat has someone whispering in her ear. Thus does precious knowledge come to her just in time. Who is the person who stands before her? Friend or foe? Should she must charm, hoodwink, and/or mystify? The counsellor can tell you.

Anthropologists should be good at whispering. After all, their academic specialty is seeing into the head and heart of the other. And these days, the manager is surrounded by a lot of others. Increasingly otherish others, in point of fact. Stakeholders have many dubious, difficult and fleeting ideas. They are hard to read. The anthropologist can. Pity the manager who must speak not just to one but many, diverse, stakeholders, sometimes with a single message. The anthropologist can.

Anthropologists can master most of the languages and logics of the stakeholder. They can craft statements that people will find not just acceptable but agreeable, not merely indubitable but illuminating. The anthropologist can help the manager craft a semiotic miracle, a cultural artifact so fiendishly complicated it makes even difficult computer programing look…well, not that difficult.

Trouble is they don’t. On the whole, anthropologists don’t get invited to the party. The ones who make it to whisperer status is probably fewer than 10. This out of the 299,000 people who have a degree in Anthropology. The “whisperer ratio” is 1 in 30,000. This is bad. That a field so rich in intellectual gifts should have contributed so little…it’s very bad.

Academic anthropologists are quick to wail it’s not their fault. “Oh, they don’t understand us. We get culture. They are philistines.”

Well, yes. When managers do think about anthropology, they are likely to think about Margaret Mead and exotic cultures. And in any case, culture is the dark matter of American management. People know it’s out there, but no one is quite sure what to do about it.

But no. Anthropologist have in some cases actively disqualified themselves from c-suite service. First, the field has moved from studying the world to studying itself. Many acts of curiosity are snuffed out by a torrent of anxieties, moral, political, and epistemological. Anthropologists have decided, on the whole, that they shouldn’t or mustn’t or can’t engage in an anthropology that looks at the world. They have stopped contemplating the other. So they’re not much good when it comes to helping others.

There is one “other” anthropologists are pretty sure about, and that’s enterprise. For many academic anthropologist, this is the devil. These anthropologists don’t know this from their own experience, generally speaking. But they have seen the Hollywood view of capitalism, which generally prefers to treat profit-seekers as the villain of the piece. This too limits the anthropologists’ usefulness. You can’t give useful advice to party you fundamentally misunderstand.

Third, anthropologists don’t know about a lot of things in the contemporary world. If I may quote myself:

“Anthropologists believe they know about a great deal about their own culture. But in point of fact, there are many worlds they do not know and cannot access, worlds of which they have scant personal knowledge and in which they have few personal contacts. Generally speaking, they don’t know anyone in the worlds of venture capital, advertising, graphic design, publishing, fashion, forecasting, strategy, philanthropy, art museums, professional sports, industrial design, user experience, startup capitalism, banking, branding, public relations, small business, big business, or politics. It’s a lot, the things anthropologist don’t know about.”

But there is a broader problem. Our individualism leaves us with a “tender” selfhood. We don’t like giving advice to certain parties for fear we’ll be swamped by said parties. We don’t like whispering because it feels too much like an act of deference or moral eclipse. The scholarship boy was eager to whisper. It was his path to power. For many people in the contemporary world, it feels like an act of self diminishment.

The National Portrait Gallery, the one in London, tells the story. In the early modern period, the artist is a servant to the sitter. His or her job is to render the image, the pretensions, the self regard of the sitter. Editorial comment is unthinkable. The artists’ ideas do not matter. He or she is a medium that brings the sitter to public viewing, the more transparently the better. But as we move away from the early modern period, artists become more active in their “constructions” of the sitter. Editorial comment is allowed and finally obligatory. Finally, the portrait is as much a reckoning of the artist as the painter. The sitter takes her chances, because anyone with real talent will refuse to subordinate his or her selfhood to that of the sitter.

I believe anthropologists feel this sensitivity keenly. They fear being used. They fear being made a handmaiden of power. (There is an unhappy history here.) It doesn’t help that the anthropologist doesn’t know who the senior manager is or what she does. It doesn’t help that she suspects the corporation must necessarily be a dangerous creature. It doesn’t help that the anthropologist knows so little about the contemporary world that she can’t distinguish advice that is benign from advice that is in fact antithetical to the general good. It’s a tender individualism because the agents and the boundaries are unclear, so moral and political considerations are hard to calculate, and when these are your chief considerations, the things that make up most up of your education in anthropology, whispering feels fraught with peril.

That’s the thing about counsellors and courtiers. Serving as they did at the pleasure of a difficult monarch (and all monarchs are) and in the midst of competing factions, they got good at reading the complexities of the world. They could figure out what belonged to the Cesare of the moment and the Christ of their own inclinations. They could advise the monarch without giving away their autonomy or compromising their morality. (To be sure, this can’t always have been true. I have allowed a presentist individualism into this discussion.)  They could make themselves useful without forgetting themselves or their personal missions. They could whisper with obscuring the whisperer.

We’ve lost that now.

For its own reasons, the occupants of academic anthropology have decided that any truck or barter with the real world must be refused. But there is a vicious circularity here. When we refuse all participation in the world, we impoverish our knowledge of that world. Now we can’t begin to grasp the boundaries or the realities they must be finessed. And when this knowledge is missing, we really do have to refuse all contact. Every thing is “too close for comfort.” Every CEO looks the same. Every corporation (even the not-for-profit one) look identical. The manager’s opportunities and dangers are invisible, and, gasp, when not invisible, indistinguishable. The anthropological whisperer has made himself good for nothing.

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