Tag Archives: American culture

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.

Make Ethnography Better

bloggables 3 d and four part.delineato

Ethnography has grown in the last couple of decades from a moody, friendless method in the social sciences to the belle of the business ball.

But clearly it has suffered in this rise to stardom. In the wrong hands, ethnography is now a license for the methodologically slap dash. To use the immortal words of Errol Morris, ethnography is now sometimes “cheap, fast and out of control.”

Part of the problem, I think, is that ethnography has been shorn away from anthropology. It was created by anthropologists (and to a lesser extent sociologists) and used in conjunction with anthropology (or sociology).

bloggables 3 d and four part.delineato

The advantage of adding “anthro” to “ethno” is that it allows us to put things captured in the life of consumer, user, or viewer in a larger, illuminating context. We can see, more surely, what it means. Without this larger context, ethnography devolves into simple observation, as in “this is what I saw when I was in a consumer’s home.”

Adding “anthro” to “ethno” also give us access to theoretical resources and intellectual traditions that contemporary ethnographers rarely seem to bring to bear on the problem at hand. (And I’m sure that I don’t need to say that the “problem at hand” for any ethnographer studying the ferocious dynamism of contemporary culture is usually formidable. We need any and all the powers of pattern recognition available to us. Airily dismissing the patterns made available by intellectual discipline and years of theoretical development is just dumb.)

How can we tell that someone is adding “anthro” to “ethno?” We are entitled to ask “where did you study anthropology?” (We could also use “sociology,” “film studies,” or “American culture.”) We are asking, “what do you bring to the table beside a claim to method?”

But this is only part of the problem. Too often, the researcher has no “depth of field.” He or she is incapable of seeing that this family, this home, the user, this community is a creature in motion changing in real change. Good observers have an acute sense of the historical factors at work here. They know what has happened in a very detailed way since World War II and they have a general sense of what has been happening in Western and especially American culture over the last 300 years.

bloggables 3 d and four part.delineato

This gives us a glimpse of “slow culture” as well as “fast culture.” (For more on the distinction, see my Chief Culture Officer.) And now we are really testing the abilities of the self appointed ethnographer. Do they have depth of field? Now we are entitled to ask, “tell me about any big, enduring trend in American culture. How did it take shape over time?”) (Don’t be surprised if they are astonished by the question.)

Here’s the problem. Most of the work being done by ethnographers is being done here.

bloggables 3 d and four part.delineato

But this ethnography is stripped of the things that gives it real explanatory power.

What we need is something that heads in this direction.

bloggables 3 d and four part.delineato

If ethnography is to evolve, we want to migrate in the direction of “anthro” + “slow culture.” We could think of this as a “Northwest passage” strategy. Until we find a way to connect these worlds, the Southeast sector must remain poorer and less cosmopolitan.

It’s not clear to me what the practical solution is. I did a couple of posts about the C-school idea a few years ago and discovered some of the following programs, any one (or several) of which might take up this challenge. (Notice that I am not saying these places have a solution, merely that they are the kind of places that might come up with one.)

The D school at Stanford (David Kelley)
W+K 12 (Wieden + Kennedy school, Victor a German Shepherd pointer)
The Miami Ad School (Ron & Pippa Seichrist)
The VCU BrandCenter (Helayne Spivak)
The Berlin School of Creative Leadership (Michael Conrad)
EPIC (Ken Anderson and Tracey Lovejoy)
UC Berkeley School of Information (AnnaLee Saxenian)
California College of the Arts 
Royal College of Arts
MIT Media Lab
Rhode Island School of Design
IIT Institute of Design (Laura Forlano, thank you Sergio)
Ethnography Training (Norman Stolzoff and Donna Romeo)
Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology
Ohio State (Liz Sanders)
University of North Texas
Wayne State
Columbia Business School (Bob Morais)
Fordham Business School (Timothy Malefyt)
Savannah College of Art and Design (Sarah Johnson and Susan Falls)

As I was noting here, the Annenberg School at USC is coming up fast.

Finally, I recently had lunch with John Curran and he tells me that things are afoot in London. I will leave it to him to reveal the details. (John, please send me a link so that I can include it here.)

I am hoping readers will let me know the programs I have missed.

The rise of a celebrity culture

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:

Mattering more:

actors

singers and musicians

athletes

Mattering less:

writers

natural scientists and other academics

US in the period 1900 – 1910

 

Pantheon -  1900-1910.png

US in the period 1900 – 1950

Pantheon - Visualizations 1900 -1950.png

US in the period 1900 – 2010

Pantheon - Visualizations.png

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.

Who did this guy think he was?

MillsI was reading C. Wright Mills’ White Collar this morning.  It’s a searching look at American society after World War II.

I was struck by the tone.

[“White-collar man”] is pushed by forces beyond his control, pulled into movements he does not understand; he gets into situations in which his is the most helpless position. The white-collar man is the hero as victim, the small creature who is acted upon but who does not act, who works along unnoticed in somebody’s office or store, never talking loud, never talking back, never taking a stand.

Surely, I thought to myself, you could render an account that describes the relative power, standing and autonomy of this social group in a way that’s not quite so patronizing.  I mean, isn’t there?  Couldn’t Wright have got most of the descriptive work done here without being so diminishing.  But, no.  It looks as if he has gone out of his way to take the imperial point of view.  Haughty, even.

[“white-collar man”] is more often pitiful than tragic, as he is seen collectively, fighting impersonal inflation, living out in slow misery his yearning for the quick American climb.

Naturally I took particular  umbrage at this passage.

…white-collar man has no culture to lean upon except the contents of a mass society that has shaped him and seeks to manipulate him to its alien ends. For security’s sake, he must strain to attach himself somewhere, but no communities or organizations seem to be thoroughly his. This isolated position makes him excellent material for synthetic molding at the hands of popular culture—print, film, radio, and television. As a metropolitan dweller, he is especially open to the focused onslaught of all the manufactured loyalties and distractions that are contrived and urgently pressed upon those who live in worlds they never made.

This argument is what it is.  You buy it or you don’t.  Personally, I think it’s a bit of myth making that bears an uneven connection to the realities of American life, and almost no connection to the lived experience of middle class life after World War II.  This world was fun,  terrifying, experimental, and reckless.  A large group of people were undertaking individual and collective acts of social and cultural mobility.   White collar?  Try cervical collar.  This was a whip lash world.     (See my chapter “When Cars Could Fly: Raymond Loewy, John Kenneth Galbraith and the 1954 Buick” in Culture and Consumption II for an elaboration of this argument.  See  Home Fires for something more ethnographic.)

C. Wright Mills missed all of this.  What you get is the odor of disappointment, that the middle class was refusing narratives preferred by the radical sociologist.   His topic is the little people, and naturally any reference to autonomy, agency, experiment, self definition or, gasp, individualism is not only not welcome but an impediment to the larger argument.

Wright was a school master, reproving students  for not rising to the intellectual challenge.   How else to explain the tone.  It’s so very confident of the speaker’s authority.  So unafraid of openly scorning the subject.  So certain that the speaker knew better and could claim a higher standing.   Edward Said helped us understand those moments when Western critics presume to generalize and diminish other cultures.  He called it Orientalism.  But what term do we use when  intellectuals diminish not other cultures but their own? Occidentalism?

But the real question is whether anything like this is now possible.  Would anyone talk this way in the present day?   Would anyone dare?  Yes, the white-collar man has been transformed inside and out.  That much is clear.  What about the intellectual?  Any movement there?

Period Piece

Ember

Or

Silky Szeto
Silky Szeto

This is a great essay in Pacific Standard by John Gravois.  It should be read for its sheer skill and evident pleasure it brought the writer, then the reader.  But I couldn’t help looking at it anthropologically, breaking it down alphabetically, as above.  (I did the first image.  And Silky Szeto took pity on me and offered his alternative, used here by kind permission!)

A  Author spots something in the world (artisanal toast)

B  Author tracks trend to point of origin in the world (Trouble)

C Author discovers the originator (Giulietta Carrelli)

D Author discovers the origin myth which proves to have 3 layers:

D1 Carrelli as a Berkeley students conducts a culturematic experiment in the street, discovers the magic sociological properties of toast

D2 Carrelli wanders in the world before discovering a very wise man (Glenn)  on a beach who gives her essential advice (he is the Buddha CA style, hence his name)

D3 Toast and Trouble prove to be a very good solution to a deeply personal problem, Carrelli’s psychological affliction

E This is the trajectory of so much cultural meaning in American culture.  It begins as a  personal invention, created for  personal reasons, and then it finds its way by logical and diffusion stages into American culture, installing itself in our lives, as a much more public, but still resonant, meaning.  The personal becomes the public becomes the personal.  Think Z-dogs skating abandoned houses in southern California.  Think Alice Waters.  Think Lou Reed.  Think Pete Seeger.  Some film makers.  Most novelists.  All poets.

And I love how well this essay works as an essay.  This may have something to do with the double construction.  Gravois’s quest becomes a study of her quest.  Gravois gives us an artisanal treatment of her artisanal treatment.  The mythic construction. that’s evoked, not inked.  The “just so” quality of the story, how inevitable it feels.  Fragile, perilous,  but necessary.

(This is a nice thing to reckon with: necessary things that seem implausible and barely possible.  Maybe that’s the post hoc at work.  In the early 1970s Alice Waters’ revolution seems implausible.  But these days it now feels like something that had to happen.)

It’s fun to think how much American culture comes from the personal.  From individuals making cafes called Trouble and authors discovering them in essays called Toast.  Apparently, we have pipes down everywhere, there to capture innovations and bring them to the surface.  Meaning as energy.  I’m not sure we know enough about this process.  This is the social face of innovation.  We know how bags of data and thinking on technological and business innovation.  But the social stuff, that’s less clear.

Last thought

Sorry for my graphic.  I thought it would work as a kind of a road map for the post.  But really it just ends up looking like one of those combination locks on the driver’s door of a mid size, turn-of-the century Buick.  Sorry.  I really will have to talk to the guys in the lab.  Design, this is not something they know from.  Silky Szeto was kind enough to intervene with a second, better, graphic.  Thank you, Silky. See more on Silky’s splendid work here.

Ethnographic Walk-About (or, what to do with the rest of your summer)

A former student is searching for what to do next.  With her summer…or her life.  She’s flexible.  

Here is the reply I sent her this morning:

Dear Jennifer (not her real name):

Thanks for your note.  Great to hear your voice again.

It feels to me that you are more or less uniquely positioned to do an ethnographic walk-about.

You have a great eye, a great voice, you are not wedded to any particular ideology or cultural camp, you have a breadth of experience, you are mobile in almost every sense of the term.

It feels to me like everyone is burrowing, sticking to what and who they know. There is stuff happening “out there,” but people are so shocked by the new that they can’t manage the novelty. So they are not mobile.

I would get someone to give you a mandate and just go looking. My hero her is Frances FitzGerald’s 1986. Cities on a Hill, A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures. Simon and Schuster. She doesn’t make the mistake that hobbles a good deal of American journalism and scholarship, the mistake that supposes that only on the margin are we going to find something new and interesting. She casts the net wide.  And that’s especially important now, because cultural innovation is taking place everywhere.  The avant-garde no longer owns the ingenuity or courage necessary to reimagine the world.  

Go have a look! Most people are not looking. And most of those who are, are looking through lens so particular that they ALWAYS find what they are looking for, and miss what is really going on.  All we know for certain is that Americans are as usual reinvented themselves as a furious pitch and pace.  We don’t have a clear idea of who and what they are becoming.  And that’s probably a bad thing.

Good luck and keep me posted.

Best, Grant

Purchase FitzGerald at Amazon by clicking here.  

Photo: Ms. FitzGerald from her wikipedia entry.