Yesterday, I raised the topic of anthropological blogging as an unexplored opportunity. For want of better blogging, many of the most telling details of contemporary life disappear without a trace and historians will someday be obliged to reconstruct the details by watching The King of Queens.
I am calling this anthropology but it is something like an archeology, as the blogger digs down into the details of every day life and unearths cultural assumptions and practices. The trick is to proceed with precision and perspective. We need to set the focal plane first on macro and then on infinity. We want to see everyday life close up and as if from a long way off.
We could begin anywhere, but lets begin working by the light of a 5 watt bulb. I mean, of course, the fridge. We want a thorough documentation, both photographic and written. We begin with our fridge as it exists right now (no tidying up, or cleaning out, for posterity). We photograph both the outside (all those fridge magnets, notes to self, a post card from friends in Mozambique). Now the inside: wide shots and close ups.
We want to document each item in the fridge with photos. This means taking everything out and photographing it front, back and sides. (I know youve been looking for an excuse to give the place a good cleaning.) Now, a “bio of each product. Recently, I switched from flavored to plain yogurt. Why? Someone told me that “refined sugar is a bad thing. Do I know what “refined sugar is? Not really.
I need to dig as deep as I can.. From whom did I get the news about refined sugar? Why and how did it make sense to me? As I begin to examine my assumptions, I can report that I believe that food is better for me the closer it is to its natural state. (Someone told me the food chain is poisoned and the higher up the chain we eat, the higher the concentrations of toxins.) As a 53 year old, I am old enough to remember another regime that said that food was better when transformed by processing and the “miracle of science (Tang!). I can also say that I first heard this notion being resisted in the 1960s (thank you Adele Davis) and that my shift away from processed food has been taking place since then (but is still underway). This puts me in a position to report a relative distrust of the big food manufacturers and a new sense of vigilance about what I eat. In the process, I will reveal what I think a “body is, what I think “health is, how I think food works, and the larger web of assumptions that makes my world make sense. Now we are beginning to capture the overall cultural trends that shape my beliefs and practices concerning food.
Some of you will be asking, “What in Gods name is the point of recording this mans half baked notions about health? Surely, the biology texts will survive and suffice. In fact no one but the medical and a small part of the scientific community embrace the definitive view. For anthropological purposes, what matters is the common place one. Some years ago Sellar, Reatman and Muir had the bright idea of asking the English men and women to recount their national history, and reported the outcome in a book called “1066 & All That. The results are funny because some of these people have only a vague idea of the details, and what they dont know they make up or fill in (with airy phrases like, “You know, 1066 and all that.) Funny it may be, but it is also grist for the anthropological mill because it reveals history as a living thing.
There are plenty of other topics that will emerge from our reflections. Eventually, we will end up noticing and commenting on the notions of “comfort food, food as a nutriceutical, food as a source of fear, eating and cooking as a solitary activity, eating and cooking as a social activity, “grazing, brand loyalties, brand disloyalties, fridge magnets, family communications, shopping habits, waste, recycling, and a glimpse of the gods of influence: The Joy of Cooking, Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Nigella Lawson, Emeril, Adelle Davis, and so on.
As I performed my study, I begin to think of my fridge as an American town. I have the standard package of things I have eaten for ages. I have relative new comers who have been in place for a decade or so. And I have an immigrant population struggling to find and sustain a place there. This dynamic set is driven by deep cultural convictions that do not change, the advent of trends that came and stayed, and the various but continual gusts of changing fashion. Properly documented, my fridge is an illuminating manuscript, an entire world enameled, ready to tell its story even after it has been carted off to the dump. Our blog gives the historians a chance to see the advent of these trends by other measures, but now theyll have something like a “real time opportunity to see them in the context of a single life. I know that it seems like a lot of work, but these historians will confer on you the Pepys reward: immortality
We could perform this study for the other centers in the household: the closet, the home entertainment center, the desk and work area, the living room and so on. Always the method is the same: document the option most particularly and then “dolly back to the larger assumptions and practices that make it make sense to us. (This latter process can be performed by asking ourselves the question “why is that? every time we offer an assertion about an object. These can be posted in pieces and eventually bound together for presentation for the Smithsonian. You think Im kidding. The Smithsonian would be droolingly grateful to receive such a document.
One last point: every so often I search the web for blogs that have undertaken this process of documentation. So far, no luck. Please, if you hear of something good, let me know. I will give it a place of honor in the margin to the right.
Sellar, W.C. R.J Reatman, and Frank Muir. 1997. 1066 & All That: A Memorable History of England. London (?): National Book Network.
Steve Portigal tells me that the Pepys diary is now on line at http://www.pepysdiary.com
(Thank you, Steve, very much.)