American culture post 9/11

I just got an email for Elizabeth Molinaro, one of the ablest students in a class I taught at the Harvard Business School. Elizabeth emailed everyone in the class with this question: What are you seeing/sensing that you might label a cultural/lifestyle/environmental shift?

My answer:


Great to “hear” your voice again. I guess the thing that strikes me, well, there are several, but here’s one:

9/11 created a great lining up of the heavens–a return to all the old verities and traditions as we closed the wagons against the intruder, and now, little by little, we are returning to the full diversity of American life. (And by “diversity” I mean the vast experimentation that goes on everywhere, not only the distinctions of race and gender that are normally indicated by the term…though goodness knows race and gender have been a couple of the engines of this experimentation.)

There will always be an irreducible remainder here, a changed sense of Americanness, but slowly and surely it is a return to business as usual, and this is individualism in the marketplace (so that great outpouring of collectivity now goes away) and in the cultural world (so that “we must honor elders” feeling for orthodoxy is starting to go away too).

In a way this is a part of the war effort: after all, it is in some sense a struggle between open and closed societies. But something has changed in the tone of the diversity, and I can’t quite tell what. Sometimes I wonder whether it is a new sense of unease. It’s as if we (if a Canadian may include himself for a moment), we have a new sense of how rare we are, how risky our experiment is, how alone we are. It’s as if we have discovered that we are walking on a catwalk we had never seen before and we are much higher up than we had ever guessed. Some of the play and the optionalness of our experimental world seems to have disappeared. What we used to do for fun, we must now do out of necessity.

The larger question, however, is clear: we are returning to the “trend of trends,” a culture with hundreds of little sailing ships out there in the harbor. Very few men of war left on the horizon. Surely, one or two of these little sailing ships will come ashore bearing a message that changes all of our lives, but more and more we are a culture of many trends, rather than one or two single ones.

Needless to say, this makes marketing harder to do, and much harder to sell. Clients still want monolithic explanations. But frankly I believe it means that advantage goes to people as smart as you. They used to say that marketing isn’t rocket science…but I believe that’s changing. And this must mean that in marketing, only the smart will survive. So maybe that’s my trend: the field of marketing is driving out bad and pulling in good.

Best, Grant

David Frum on commotion

this entry ported over from my now defunct LiveJournal website Nov. 28, 02

David Frum, yesterday in the National Post, called economic freedom “the first freedom.” He gives 3 reasons: that we must be able to express our “working, building, providing” aspect, that to override economic freedom is to step upon a slippery slope, it’s only a matter of time before freedoms of religion, speech and press will be compromised, and, finally, that control of economic activity expands governmental interference.

It’s a pretty standard argument. But two things surprised me. That we never hear the companion piece to this argument. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say that the abrogation of artistic liberties puts the economy at risk. Apparently, the slippery slope doesn’t slide in this direction.

The second thing that surprised: how “siloed” is this argument. It is true that ours if a culture that thinks about religion, artistic, economic and other domains as separate, distinct, and sometimes even mutually exclusive. It is also true that the social sciences and especially the Talcott Parsons period at Harvard helped to encourage this approach to the world. (Frum went to Harvard; maybe he got it there.)

What struck me though is how much these silos have in common, how similar are the freedoms in each domain. At a certain level, deep inside the thing itself, there is almost no difference between an artist, the entrepreneur and the religious enthusiast. All three are creating and responding to a deliberate unraveling of the world. They make a tear in the surface of the world, and then they fall through it. (More on this in Commotion 0.0.)

We recoil from this idea, largely because it confounds categories “work,” “art” and “devotion.” And our feeling of repugnance may be the operation of the principle that Mary Douglas reduced in Purity and Danger to the formula “the unclear is the unclean.” (Simplifying, when things that culture renders as distinct and separate are brought together, we react as if some notion of purity has been violated. Conceptual confusion provokes a sense of pollution.)

This might be a way to make the Frumian argument. But, again, the economic domain doesn’t want to claim fellowship with the artistic and religious ones. And one wonders whether this is because art looks like an exercise in self indulgence and the irrational, two things that economic man regards as especially dangerous to his construction of self and world. Too bad. It is, after all, one culture…even and especially in its post modern moment.

No logo bad anthro

I like this sign. It’s a ‘no logo’ logo. I’ve been admiring it on my walk through the McGill ghetto. The leaves have finally fallen away so I could get a picture.

As you can see, it’s not official Pepsi issue-it’s home made. Someone took a stencil and made their own. Why? Well, it’s a store front, isn’t it? And store fronts have signs. And probably (though this is hard to imagine) Pepsi wouldn’t give them one. So they made their own.

It is a ‘no logo’ logo in another respect. This insistence, that a commercial message is appropriate even when unpaid for, suggests that this sort of thing is so much a part of the furniture of contemporary culture that we must supply it even when it doesn’t exist.

What would the store be without it? Less identifiable, less formed. So much of our landscape is created by commerce, virtually all of it is, that it is part of our real and conceptual way finding system. What doesn’t exist, we are obliged to invent.

Naomi Klein, and you knew I was getting to her, didn’t you, would have us believe that logos are a blight, and more than that, that they are an invasion, and more than that that they are a predation. But in fact, no logo is bad anthro-a failure to see, to reckon with the fact that we are, whether we like it or not, almost nothing if not an artifact of commercial forces.

It may be that Klein is right to insist that there are costs and penalties to such a thing, and it is certainly true that we need people to ferret these out and sum them up. What we should not do, I believe, is to make our unhappiness with commerce grounds for a constant posturing against it. If only because the argument is well and truly made. Enough already. But no. The argument is returned to again and again as if it contained difficulties and complexities we hadn’t quite got to the last time round. Some version of this argument has been with us throughout the Western tradition (see Brantlinger, Carey and Docker, below). Certainly it has been robust since the Frankfurt school, and more recently as a result of the efforts of the likes of Ewen and Stuart Hall and the Birmingham school. But it keeps coming back with unexpected freshness, as if the argument were brand new, or, as I say, somehow hard to think.

Here’s something fresh and hard to think. So much of commerce is warp to culture’s woof that it is now almost impossible to distinguish them. To insist on doing so is almost single handedly responsible for the troubling ironies that so amused, but why preoccupied, the 1990s: oh, that Klein is reported to be getting rich from the sale of her book, that Michael Moore is rumored to have bought 3 condos, that Moby used clothing stores and advertisements to sell his music, that Courtney love sold Kurt’s memories for $4 million. No good things can come from commercial motives. No authenticity can come from something touched by the market place. Commerce is pandering. These are a few of our favorite things to think about the commercial culture. They prevent us from the real intellectual challenge here: not how to think about culture and commerce separately, Klein demonstrates that anybody can do this. The real challenge is thinking about how they go together. Not to celebrate that they go together. God knows we have had enough of that. But to understand what it is to live in a society where culture and commerce live out of one another’s pockets. Like it or not, this is who we are and how we live. It will decide what becomes of us.

The time has come to stop protesting the effect of commerce on culture and see how the two run together. How else are we to understand why someone would make a logo for their store front.

Brantlinger, Patrick. 1983. Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay . Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber.

Docker, John. 1994. Postmodernism and popular culture: a cultural history. Cambridge. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Phatic TV

Hello Goodbye (as seen on TV!)

There’s an exceptional amount of time and attention given to greetings in the cops shows of the moment: NYPD Blue, Law and Order, the Canadian Da Vinci’s Inquest, and the immortal Homicide.

Everyone’s always coming and going, and with each arrival and departure there is a ritualized greeting. Often this carries the weight of the scene in its few words and simple gestures. We can tell exactly what Andy thinks of the captain by the way he says goodbye to him.

But a lot of these greetings are a kind of phatic texture, meant to show that these are real people and not TV robots. Some of the “gritty authentiicity” of the cop show comes from the minimalism of these gestures, as if (and this may be true) the middle class viewers of the show are obliged to offer greetings are bigger, brighter, more enamelled and gregarious. Any show that features these tiny, grudging greetings must be very authentic indeed.

Still it is odd that so much “action television” should consist in the frequent repetition of words, phrases and gestures that are, after all, not so very demonstrative, animated or active. Don’t try this at home, kids. It’s only for trained professionals on a closed course.

Post card from Mexico I

Postcards from Mexico

I was so lonely in Mexico I send out about 30 postcards. Weeks passed. And finally one found its way home, beating its way through bad weather and high winds to my friend Jim in Montreal.

To Jim
This turns out to be a city of lazy light and shadow, filtered by smog we can’t do in North America, not enough (or the same) particulate content, I think. They have these little machines, I believe they call them Volkswagens, that travel the city, constantly producing more and seeing to an even(ing) distribution. Got to the anthropology museum just in time for closing but they let me walk the courtyard. Magnificent. And outside little carts with multitudes in shrink wrap, lighters, playing cards, children’s toys. Their Halloween is coming! Hope you’re well. Seen you soon.

Looking for M. Richler

I am determined to find some place in Montreal where people meet talk and smoke and talk and drink and talk. I recall that Mordecai Richler was famous for his bars and so I google: Richler Montreal bars. And that’s why I am standing outside Winnie’s at 1459 Crescent Street.

The bar itself, I mean, the very bar is whirled walnut. That can’t be right. There is a copy of Sir Winston’s portrait, the one that shows him sitting with his arms “astride” his armchair, the way heroes use to stand astride a patch of ground. They are playing that song from the 80s, the one by a one hit wonder, a man of indeterminate gender, a disco number that featured the lyric “pump it.” This is playing real loud (and that’s louder than really loud). “Where’s the cigar bar?” I ask. “There’s a box of cigars in the corner,” the bartender says. Now they are playing “take my breath way.”

The bartender gives off a whiff of fetal alcohol syndrome. Some people claim they can tell by looking. I’m not one of them. There is a hockey game on, tiny, hyper active figures gliding over translucent white. It’s real dark in here. There’s one table of guys who look like they might be talking talking (as we say). They are of Richler’s generation, girth and inclination. Now the music is Under my Thumb by Lionel Ritchie. Ritchie meet Richler. Can the tape really be as old as this? Or is this a “programming” choice?

I ask the bartender if there is a day in the week when people come to talk. He stares at me wordlessly. A guy enters the bar shouting, “yeah, baby,” his tribute to Austin Powers. They are sitting across the bar in what I took to be a no-space created by the mirror image of the bar. Ghosts? None of them looks like MR. “Is there another place people go to talk?” “I think it’s like this up and down the street.” The newcomers have a great appetite for life and for popcorn. They keep jamming their meaty fists into whicker baskets. They are drinking beer.

There is a deeply worried looking Asian guy at the far end of the bar. I am beginning to get a little worried myself. This reminds me of my one moment in a bar in Cologne when a table nearby suddenly burst into song. A Dutch companion said quietly into his beer, “Any second now they will start marching.” The “yeah baby” man is now making dancing motions.

I happen to know that Richler also used to frequent the bar of the Ritz Carleton. I believe I may be safe there. It proves to be subdued in exact proportion to the frenzy of the Winnie. I have not yet popped the Richler question to the bar staff. But I have a felling I will get another look of incomprehension. Americans would be bursting with a boosterish joy at a celebrity association.

Oh, there is something crawling on the bar, a tiny little bug, so small its hard to say what is is, and all those years with my mother spent at natural history meetings in church basements conducted by men with dry hands and aggressively bad clothing who would comment with great and grave dignity on the wonders of the natural world. (This is what I will do when I grow up, I promised myself.) The lessons do me no good at all. No sooner do I see the little bug than he disappears into a crack in the bar surface, black laminate (no whirled walnut here!).

The music is smooth big band, horns and drums huge but syncopated. Now a jazz solo. When I can I struggled to move one of the bar chairs. The wait person says, with a wide gaze, flawless skin, and a certain vacuity of her own, “it’s heavy.” “Yes,” I say, “that’s my exercise for the day.” “Well,” she replies, “Now you can relax.”

There is no one here. Just two tables. The first is occupied by an older man with a cigar and a spectacularly coiffed woman of indeterminate age (but, between you and me, way younger than him) and a table in the alcove concealed from view. I struggle to listen “in” but I cannot make out what they are saying. I am getting a “tone” however and I am guessing it might be Charo or one of those notorious Charo imitators.

The waiter is in his 30s, plain, obsequious, and probably, originally, a Spanish speaker. He has no neck so his head and shoulders very nearly shared the same plane. He is talking to another man at the bar, a chap, who is, I’m guessing, Middle Eastern in origin. He has a newspaper, a sheet of paper, a glass of water and a glass of beer. A moment ago he answered the bar phone. He is discussing whatever he is reading with the bartender. The young beauty has fled.

It’s a least space exercise. Who here is most likely to have knowledge of the history of the bar? The alcove has disgorged itself. They are putting on expensive outer coats. It is cold outside. Both have beautiful gray hair. “yeah, cause I’m leaving” says the man. And his wife replies, “that’s ok then. So they are in the car.” As they leave, they are replaced by 4 thirty somethings who sit in the far corner and warm to conversation in a way that suggests that the spirit of Richlerian conversation is upon them. Though, to be honest, I have no idea what this style was. Though surely it was engaged, careful, garrulous, and smart. Them, too.

I ask the ME guy about MR and he is courtly in his interest in my question but no help at all. “What period?” He returns to his bar stool and after a moment he leaps us and says, “I think I know who you should talk to.” In a moment he returns with Antony, a man in his 60s, perhaps 70s, with the last of an aspirating Irish accent and a controlled comb over. He wears a high buttoned suit and a concierge’s badge.

Yes, he knew Mr. Richler. He drank here often. And Antony then spoke uninterrupted for about 5 minutes, bringing a pretty coherent stream of recollection out of memory but only by a process of constant encouragement directed first at the body that then returned to the mind. Antony worked so hard to remember that he rocked in a place and he held his hands away from his body on either side, so that they looked like rails designed to keep the rocking steady. And they did.

No, I was wrong to think of Winnie’s as a place that Richler would drink at night. The place changes its tone depending on the time of day, Antony explained. No, it might be lunch at Winnie’s and then drinks at Vinnie’s. I know, I know. The ME guy and I listened with interest and I was thrilled to think that some part of the oral history of the hotel was passing from one generation to the next. Lots of interesting details including references to a Rabinovitch, who was Richler’s friend. “He always asks for a 30s suite,” I thought I heard Antony say. 30’s suite? Could they really have rooms untouched since then. Daz and I will have to smuggle in and investigate. Daz can detect olfactory evidence as far back as the mid 19th century and is positively Holmesian in the things he can deduce therefrom.

So nothing and then a gusher. And then another gusher. The ME guy and I returned to the bar and introduced ourselves. His name is Ghazi, a last name he uses as his all purpose name. I ask him if he can remember the names of the rooms in the hotel that Antony has mentioned. He gives them to me: Grand Prix and Maritime. And then he says, “would you like to see them” and away we go. First to the front desk to retrieve a man with keys and then down a stairway and into a wainscoted piano bar (the Grand Prix) and on to the oval Maritime room, passing through a mirrored doorway that proved first to have a very discrete lock and then to roll invisibly into the wall. Rooms waiting. No sign of the ghosts to whom the young beauty had referred when she heard where we were going. Just embarrassed glances as couples parted and departed the space they had made their dance floor. Ask and ye shall receive.

Adieu Bourdieu?

According to Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times (Oct. 16, 2002), symphonies have a problem. Some people who used to buy season tickets prefer single ticket sales.

In a culture of commotion, this makes sense for three reasons.

First, we are moving from the culture that reveals the Arnoldian notion of culture, the idea of a hierarchy of taste that puts fine things on high and more popular culture below. This conceit, hypnotically powerful in one form or another in the West for at least 500 years, is now losing its vise-like grip on the way people think about themselves, the culture they care about, the things they consume. (See book 2, Transformation, for more on this.) This means that the status giving, identity defining importance of symphony subscription is on the wane. This is not to say that people don’t care about high culture and the status it brings them. It is to say they care about many other kinds of culture and identities as well.

And this brings us to the second reason. Because people now have bundles of selves that cover a range of class, age, experiential, stylistic, gender definitions, they are obliged to have access to a range of cultural events. This means we have to spread the same dollar over symphonies, clubs, web access, diverse books, several magazines and so on. That symphony subscription takes up too much of our available resources. Better to dip into the symphony season as and when it looks useful and leave those other resources for deployment in a different venue, for a different purpose.

There’s a third reason. The just-in-time nature of our culture. We can’t know when we are asked to sign up for symphony season who we will be at the end of it. And we certainly dont know where contemporary culture is going to be. Don’t make us choose early. Give us the latitude to choose as and when it becomes apparent who we are becoming and where the several groups to which we belong are heading.

Thoughts only.