A note on style: I wrote this in a hotel room somewhere. I used Scapple from Literature and Latte to do it. It was really just a note to myself. But then I thought, “maybe this is a better, more visual, way to present the post.” Tell me what you think about the form as well as the content, please.
Coming home from Phoenix on Friday, I found myself sharing the plane with Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Bret Stephens. Bryant and Bayer are SNL players. Stephens (below) is Foreign Affairs columnist at the Wall Street Journal.
I am guessing Bryant, Bayer, and Stephens have different views of the world. (This is a guess, but I am comfortable working by the “available light” of SNL and WSJ.)
I am guessing one difference of opinion turns on their ideas of America.
Bryant and Bayer taunt us for the sexism that diminishes men and women. Both of them excel at the performance of a certain “sweet-faced” agreeableness, occupying stereotypes the better to destroy them.
Stephens, on the other hand, is a student of the American presence abroad, and especially alert to how it serves the cause of reasonableness in a world where fundamentalism now routinely makes reason almost impossible to obtain. (See his excellent book: America in Retreat.)
Not such different projects, after all. We could say these three Americans stand for different versions of liberty, that most American idea. Bryant and Bayer champion personal liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose personal identity, (and not have it forced upon them). Stephens champions political liberty and the notion that it is the right of individuals to choose collective identity, (and not have it forced upon them).Both oppose the enemies of liberty.
And they work together. Stephens insists on America as a “city on a hill” that promises liberty to those held captive by other polities, even as Bryant and Bayer keep the “city” true to its mission and investigate what happens to identity once gender stereotypes are thrown off. (First political liberty, then cultural liberty.)
To this extent, these three are all “on the same plane.”
But things, I think it’s fair to assume, end there.
When it comes to the presidential race, Bryant, Bayer and Stephens have much less in common. I guess that Bryant and Bayer favor Hilary, if not Sanders, while Stephens favors Cruz, but not Trump. (A man who cares this much about foreign affairs could not vote for a Donald Trump who, as the joke has it, doesn’t know who the prime minister of Canada is. We don’t need “available light” for this one, first principles will do.)
This difference makes a difference. Now these three, with so much in common, begin to press in opposite directions. Eventually, what they share, like the rest of American politics, begins to tear and perhaps eventually to vanish. I expect the political science of this problem is well charted. I want to comment on the anthropology.
Consider what might have happened had Bryant, Bayer and Stephens struck up a conversation on flight 1095. (As far as I know, they didn’t. They weren’t seated together. And, to my great regret, they weren’t seated with me.)
What would have happened to this conversation? Once they got beyond the pleasantries, was there common ground? Or are we now living with pockets of difference so different that mutuality is now in peril. This is what scares the anthropologist.
We could use comedy to construct a continuum. In a fully mutual culture, every one “gets” the joke as a joke. In a culture of failing mutuality, there are some people who don’t get they joke but they do at least understand that a joke was intended.
We have a linguistic convention here. The person who loves the joke looks at the person who has a puzzled expression, and asks, “You get the joke, right?” And the puzzled person says, “Oh, I get it. I just don’t think it’s that funny.” At this point, we know there is some noise in the cultural system, but only some. Not all jokes are fungible. But all jokes are visible.
Then there is the third stage, the one we may be approaching now, and that’s when the puzzled person can’t tell that a joke was intended. (Some of Sarah Silverman’s jokes strike me that way. I am of course joking.) The puzzled person (me) is as if from another culture,. They do not share an idea of what “funny” (at least in this case) is. Somebody does something. Other people begin to laugh. Now when asked, “You get the joke, right?” the puzzled person replies “Um, no, I don’t. It’s funny? What’s funny?”
Sometimes when we storm at one another on the political stage, I wonder if this is not a theater made out of the narcissism of small differences. Really, we are just seizing on our differences as an opportunity for a jolly good shouting match. And who doesn’t like a shouting match.
But sometimes you have to wonder whether we are approaching a stage in which we are no longer (or less) mutually intelligible. You could argue that it is the unacknowledged task of SNL and the WSJ to craft a commonality, to help build a shared language, shared values, as we go. And sometimes this appears to work quite well. But other times we are looking at the emergences, driven in part by the creative efforts of SNL and the WSJ, where small quantitative differences add up to big paradigmatic jumps. We start to separate.
There is no narcissism of big differences. The “jolly” and the “good” disappear. Then it’s strangers on a plane. Mutuality is now fugitive. (Having taken another flight.)
Here’s one possibility, that there is something about our present political process that is really perilous in the present moment. It’s an old system, designed to make it possible to capture the political will when people are scattered across a continent. This politics is a Mississippi where tiny differences in the hinter land are driven to aggregate until at the end of the day we have two parties and a few ideas. This aggregating process was valuable when the country was so geographically disaggregated. But now that we are so cultural disaggregated, it may force some contests and oppositions that are unnecessary.
Force us to make simple choices, and we rush to opposite sides of the ship of state. Find some way to capture the political will(s) in a more nuanced way, and we might escape we some of the enmity and some of the shouting match. (But now we are back in the realm of political scientist, and the anthropologist must defer to her better judgment.)
I had a chance to interview Noemi Charlotte Thieves on January 10. We were at a going-away party in Brooklyn and fell into conversation. The conversation was SO INTERESTING that I asked Noemi if we could step outside so that I could capture our conversation on my iPhone. (The ethnographic opportunity is always now.)
Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. We had to find a fire engine and cue the fire engine and the driver couldn’t hit his mark. Finally we just had him drive into frame. I mean does the NYFD not give these people ANY media training? (We love. We kid.)
Noemi was wonderful to interview, an ethnographer’s dream, a gift from the gods of ethnography. He’s thoughtful, clear, vivid, expansive, intelligent, and illuminating.
I think Noemi is perhaps also a glimpse of the culture we’re becoming.
This interview 20 years ago would have been painful and sad. We were a culture of two solitudes. Filmmakers could be popular or they be experimental. And they were tortured by the choice. They were forced to choose one side or the other.
Sometime in the last 10 years, the two extremes began to draw together. (And ironies of ironies, this was roughly the period in which the two extremes of American politics began to drive apart.) Genre and art have yet to find one another, but, as Noemi points out, the hunt is on.
So far, as Noemi also points out, it’s been a happy rapprochement. The popular stuff, while democratic and accessible, was obvious to the point of being laborious and “jump the shark” awful. And the artistic work was, too often, obscure. It was, actually, as the phrase has it, “deservedly obscure.” (There was a time when Canadians refused to watch anything that came from the National Film Board. They were effectively boycotting the work they were as taxpayers helping to fund.)
To combine the two extremes is to begin to construct a single American culture, a place where democratic clarity and artistic risk work together. Now, we have to figure out what to do about the politics.
(Thanks to Jeremy DiPaolo and Katie Koch for the introduction to Noemi. (How is Sweden?))
These images are from the Pantheon database at the Macro Connections group at Media Lab at MIT. They map what the Media Lab calls “historical cultural production” and the relative proportion of famous people by time, place and category.
I asked the database to report on fame in the US for three periods:
1900 – 1910
1900 – 1950
1900 – 2010
The most striking results:
singers and musicians
natural scientists and other academics
US in the period 1900 – 1910
US in the period 1900 – 1950
US in the period 1900 – 2010
The glib thing to say is that the sky is falling, that we are a culture that cares more about celebrities than “serious people” and this must be taken as a measure of our essential triviality and an indication that the end is nigh.
Intellectuals especially like to recite the line from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, the one that says that too many of our celebrities are “famous for being famous.” And it feels nice to stand on our high horse and scorn contemporary culture, but it’s not very instructive or intelligent. It just makes us feel good.
In point of fact, no one is famous for being famous. At a minimum they speak to and for something in our culture, and only thus do they climb from the obscurity that otherwise holds the rest of us captive (and especially and increasingly scornful academics). (Boorstin was a fine and incredibly useful historian but this his most memorable phrase was not his best moment. I believe it stands as a Kuhnian confession of the limits of his paradigm, as if to say, “I can’t understand celebrity so I am going to say it isn’t anything.” Historian, heal thyself.)
An anthropological point of view obliges us to take a culture at its face and reckon with what it is, not what we think it should or shouldn’t be. This work has yet to be undertaken, but a few notes:
- Celebrities serve at our collective pleasure in a way that other elites do not. When we are done with a celebrity we are so very done with them. Now we scorn them as “has beens.”
- Celebrities are superbly adaptable. We need a different model of selfhood, a new version of maleness, a transformed model of what is “funny,” “charming” or “tragic,” there is an actor out there somewhere who is prepared to serve. This makes celebrity culture a useful “complex adaptive system” in the language of complexity theory. We can swap in the new, and swap out the old, easily and without any real cost (to us). (The cost to celebrities of our capriciousness is cruel. Do we care? We don’t care. We make French monarchs look like models of compassion.)
- Individual celebrities are sometimes highly experimental and we should signify this as the US Air Force does with an “X.” When an airplane is called the X15 the Air Force is warning us that it is experimental and not to be completely surprised if it falls from the sky. Why not call him XRussellCrowe (and watch for flying telephones).
Source: Yu, A. Z., et al. (2016). Pantheon 1.0, a manually verified dataset of globally famous biographies. Scientific Data 2:150075. doi: 10.1038/sdata.2015.75
Thanks to the Macro Connections group at MIT.
Give the database a spin here.
Thanks to Thomas Ball for the find and the head’s up. Hat’s off to Cesar Hidalgo and the Media Lab. We have too little data on culture in motion and America is nothing if not a culture in motion.
I did this interview for a project called Automated Anthropologist. (I went to San Francisco and let it be known that I was prepared to do anything anyone told me to do, within the limits of morality, legality, and being Canadian.)
With the help of Maria Elmqvist (now a Strategic Planner at Perfect Fools in Amsterdam), I talked to Craig Young.
I like this interview for a couple of reasons but chiefly it’s Craig. Really clear, forthcoming, and helpful. I paid him, so I was making some small contribution to his economy. But he went above and beyond the call. (Maria and I approached another guy for an interview and he said, “not so much” in a way that sounded unmistakably like “go f*ck yourself.” Craig’s generosity was especially welcome.)
Another thing I liked about the interview was the glimpse it gives of city life. In this case, of the invisible distinctions of space that are perfectly clear to Craig and a surprise to the rest of us (if and when discovered by the rest of us). The world is filled with this invisible distinctions. They surround us all the time. The secret of ethnography: keep an eye out. Ask everyone.
A third point to make is methodological. Interviews a guy like Craig is difficult because you are (I am) concerned that you are (I am) going to ask something insensitive. In addition to invisible spaces, there are invisible sensitivities, and the last thing you (I) want to do is blunder into them.
Hence my tone, which is deliberately convivial, kinda loud, and bit clueless. The cultural logic is this: if this guy (me) is incapable of certain subtleties, he may give offense, but he doesn’t mean to give offense. (We may think of this as the “big stupid labrador” defense.) I know this is counter-intuitive, but then it is a cultural logic, not a logical logic. Ironically, the more you signal an effort not to give offense (by agonizing over choice of words and so on), the more likely you are to give offense.
A fourth point, this one moral: there are people in the research community who believe that an interview with Craig offends morally and politically. The notion is that I am taking advantage of a power asymmetry. Yes, it’s true, asymmetries raise the possibility of exploitation. And then it’s incumbent on me to see and say what my motives were. The answer is that for the purposes of Automated Anthropologist I was talking to anyone who would talk to me. Did I take more than I gave? That’s a tough one. I paid Craig. So there was an exchange of value. Only Craig can decide whether he was properly compensated. The danger is that if we decide that we shouldn’t interview Craig for political reasons, he is denied the engagement and the pay. I think it’s for Craig to decide whether he wants to do the interview, and to remove this choice from him really does enact a power asymmetry. Apparently, we know better than he does. We decide for him. But this is not an easy issue.
A fifth point: I am glad to know even a little more about Craig and what life is like in the street. The idea of having to worry about people “stealing your stuff” is a revelation. I can’t imagine this order of disorder in my life. It’s all interesting to see that there is more order than I would have expected, certain work arounds, a schedule, a support network. All of these discourage the idea I tend to have of life on the street, that it is radically unstable and always on the verge of the cataclysmic. And I guess that’s one thing to take away from the interview, that life on the street is both quite stable and always on the verge of the cataclysmic.
A sixth point: the defense of this interview, the defense of all ethnographic work, is perhaps that the other is a little less other. I don’t think I carry diminishing ideas of people who live in the street. (I don’t romanticize them. I don’t blame them.) But it’s also true that, beyond that, I don’t know what to think. Ethnography, even a very brief interview of this kind, helps give us access to one another. And this is a necessary condition, I think, of empathy and aid.
One last point, everyone with a smart phone is now in possession of a fantastically good piece of recording technology. I wish I were doing more of these interviews. I wish we all were.
Post script: thanks to Maria Elmqvist who did the camera work and participated in Auto Anthro with intelligence and a real ethnographic sensitivity.
Whenever I have the chance to talk to Bud Caddell, I take it. This’s because while I know the future is badly distributed (in Gibson’s famous phrase), I fervently believe it must be somewhere in the near vicinity of Bud Caddell.
In this 10 minutes of interview, Bud talks about the following things
00: 37:00 mark (~) that with his new company Nobl Collective, he is learning how to configure the culture inside a company to articulate it with the culture outside the company.
00:58:00 the digital disruption changes these things in succession
- how brands communicate
- how products are made
- the teams within the organization
1:39 On joining the world of advertising and why he left.
3:43 the thing about that very famous Oreo campaign (that it took 6 different agencies, and a lot of money). This was not the “safe to fail” experiments the world now holds dear.
4:20 companies are having to learn to both optimize and futurecast, and that these are opposing challenges.
6:00 there is a tension in the corporation between pushing the innovation team too far away or holding it too close. (Amazon is the case in point.)
6:43 Nobl believes that companies take human choice away from teams. The point of Nobl is to restore that choice.
10:20 Bud is concerned that, all the noise to the contrary, we are actually moving away from small startup entrepreneurialism. Bigness is not dying, it’s once more on the rise.
11:56 Bud is concerned that with this culture inside, the culture outside (i.e., American culture) could narrow and something like a 50s monoculture
11:18 organizations are inclined to treat employees like errant children or robots. The point of the exercise find their strength, not assume their weaknesses. Give them autonomy. (Because they can’t navigate the future, they can’t create value, without that autonomy. My words, more than Bud’s. Sorry!)
??:?? Nobl aims to construct core teams with 4 properties
- customer obsessed (prepared to “leave the building” to find out more
- closely aligned with one another
- autonomous, free to discover an idea and test it
- organized by simple rules
Thanks to Bud for the chance to chat.
I am hoping to do more of these interviews. My assumption is that we are all works in progress working on a work in progress in a work in progress, and that to listen to one another as we configure works1, works2 and work3 is interesting.
One last note on method. This interview might stand as a grievous example of “leading the witness.” I was shocked when listening to it again to hear that my questions were more about me and less about Bud. Yes, you have to start somewhere. And yes, inevitably you are going to speak from what you know. But the very point of ethnography and the thing it does so well is to discover things you don’t think and hadn’t ever thought to think. It’s always a chance, more vividly, to get out of our heads into that of the respondent. Or to put this another way, I was insufficiently curious in this interview.
This is an interview that Zsa Zsa (left) and I did recently with Ryan Ernst at Use All Five. Thanks, Ryan.