Tag Archives: culture

Ken Burns, an anthropological portrait of an artist and the edge

[This essay first appeared in Medium. It has been lightly edited for presentation here.]

In the world of documentary filmmaking, it feels like there’s the era “Before Ken Burns” (BKB) and the one that follows his rise to prominence. In the first, documentaries can be laborious, hectoring and blowzily imprecise, both too broad and too detailed.

In the KB era, this tradition is changed by a man who simply steps into the American conversation. Leaving this rest of us to wonder, what took us so long? Then Burns turns out a succession of works so diverse you wonder if he isn’t showing off (like the Coen brothers mastering one genre after another). Burns has looked at The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The National Parks (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Roosevelts (2014). This work changes the documentary. These are less tortured and less torturing. Interesting, actually. Arresting, even. Arresting? Documentaries? This was new.

But in a tragic trick of timing, no sooner has the KB era begun than the doors of the documentary profession burst open to admit a noisy, vulgar horde. (Burns must have felt like Odysseus who finally makes it home only to find the place overrun by horrible strangers.) Thanks to smart phones, YouTube and VICE journalism, there’s a new generation of shockingly amateur doc makers (with Shane Smith playing Antinous). This work was less “crafted like prose” and more “blasted like music.” And it attracted the ridicule of Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in Documentary Now. Thus was the “Hope I remembered to charge my iPhone!” school of documentary filmmaking beaten back. A little. But the damage was done. No sooner had Burns established a new school than he is made to look old school. And not the good kind.

The damage was done but the achievement was clear. Burns has made his mark. In a narrow window of influence, he changed documentaries and the object of these documentaries. It may not be too much to say (and this would be the ultimate anthropological and documentary compliment) he changed the way we see the world and the world we see. America, Americans and American culture are subtlety transformed. When I think of moments in American history, they often return in a slow pan of black and white. It’s a deceptive surface, this loving but literal look at the past, but even this is his.

The first feature of the Burns’ approach is the impression of almost complete transparency. We are invited to see right through the documentary to its topic. There are no parade-float generalities, no “march of history” rhetoric, no arty, avant-garde pretension, and no showing off. Generalities are measured. Simple truths in a plain style. The filmmaker as our servant.

Nor does Burns have any time for the academic attack on individualism. In his work, individuals have agency, authors matter, and much of the point of the exercise is recording who did what in a way that gives people credit for their accomplishment. Jackie Robinson is no abstraction in cleats. This is the man himself making himself as he makes his way.

This focus on the individual works for us. Abstractions, who can say? There is rarely enough substance in a documentary for us to decide. But human stories, these we can judge. We can use our own experience and empathy to test for veracity.

The Ken Burns Effect

The “Ken Burns effect,” as it is now called, moves the camera slowly across a still photograph.
The first objective is to focus our attention and help us see.

The second is to supply a sociological truth. Thus we see black kids playing stick ball in a Washington slum. As the camera pulls back, we see the Capital dome towering above, its majesty now a ruin.

The third is to give us a psychological truth. Burns shows Jackie Robinson being taunted by Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies: “Hey, boy, I need a shine. Come shine my shoes, boy.” In the voice-over supplied by Jamie Foxx, we hear Robinson struggling to control himself. “For one wild, enraged, crazed, minute, I thought ‘To hell with Mr. Ricky’s noble experiment.’” Robinson thinks about crossing the diamond and taking a swing at someone, anyone on the Phillies’ bench. Story well told. Point well made. But it’s only when the pan completes its journey that we are finally close enough to see the look in Robinson’s eye. This lets us feel what “wild” and “enraged” must have felt like. The camera sets up objective knowledge and carries us through to personal understanding (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 1:25:04).

But the fourth and perhaps the most important arch takes us out of sociological and psychological truths and plunges us into culture not served up but played out. Take the long pan in Jackie Robinson that shows Wendell Smith, sports journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier. Smith appears in a three-quarter shot. He is surrounded by white men who are drinking and animated, clearly captivated by the festivities at hand. But Smith is looking out of the party into the camera and he’s wearing an expression that’s one part self-possession and two parts preoccupation, pain…or something. We can’t quite tell (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:36 to 23:50).

The voice-over says,

Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier, the country’s largest black newspaper, insisted that his paper attack the prohibition of blacks in the major leagues until we drop from exhaustion.

The camera completes its push into Smith’s gaze just as the voice-over says “until we drop from exhaustion.” We just shifted from the objective voice into Smith’s own words. The voice-over and the pan come to an end at the same moment and we now confront Smith nose to nose (Burns, Ken. 2016. Jackie Robinson documentary, 23:40).

That we can’t quite tell what Smith is thinking is, apparently, exactly where the Burns means to leave us. This is a journey from a general view to a more particular one. But the particular truth turns out to be inscrutable. We knew exactly what Jackie Robinson was feeling (or thought we did). But here we can’t tell.

As the camera moves, we’ve been doing a muttered voice-over of our own.

“Oh, ok, an African American guy at a party. Nice suit. Who are those other guys?”

The camera moves in, and we think,

“Oh, ok, so that’s a sports writer with his, are those his friends? His colleagues? Celebrating something, it looks like. Is he taking part or hating it?”

And finally,

“Oh, that’s Wendell Smith. Writing for a Pittsburgh paper? Really. What does it mean ‘until we drop from exhaustion?’ How do you do that from inside a newspaper, this party, that suit?”

Questions fly up like moths from a blanket. We reach for them. They evade us. There are no good answers to these questions. All we can grasp is the complexity of the life of a man who is working from inside baseball to change it. (“Working from inside baseball to change it,” what a deliciously impossible idea.)

This camera delivers us from the general to the particular and leaves us…a bit stranded.
Thoughts pile up and collide. Uncertainties accumulate. Hell, and things were going so well. For a second there, we were like European monarchs, large and in charge, as if carriage born. Not any more. Apparently, we walk from here.

This may be the deepest strategy of the Ken Burns effect. And he appears to be working on a strategy of cultural misdirection. For all the transparency, the clarity of reference, and the refusal of artiness, Burns is not the friend to exposition he pretends to be. He means to make this difficult. He wants us, sometimes, to struggle.

I’m not sure what Burns’ intention is. He says he wants to “complicate” things. He says he wants to make 1 + 1 = 3. (To which I can only reply, “do the math.”) But it’s clear, anthropologically speaking, that his documentary is an operation on culture. After Burns has delivered sociological and psychological illuminations, after he has constructed a great story, he wants to push us out, out of received ideas, out of our tried and true ways of seeing the world.

This is a convivial mischief. Burns is using culture, then jamming it. He wants not just to take us to the edge of what we know. And push us over. Gently. There are some story tellers who use a strategic indeterminacy to make a story “fizz.” Burns goes farther. Indeterminacy is not a rhetorical ornament (as they used to say). This is something closer to an anti-rhetorical exercise. Look, he seems to say, meaning doesn’t go any farther than this.

All of this depends on Burns’ ability to manage meanings perfectly. It’s precisely all that clarity and the virtuoso control of image, word, voice and pan that sets us up. We get used to it. We take it as our due. Then all of a sudden, the ride is over. It’s as if Burns is saying,
This is as far as I take you. Get out of the carriage.

Michael Moore is all about indignation. Morgan Spurlock trickster energy. Spalding Gray the Martian. The Maysles brothers several worlds. Each has a way to make culture visible. Each forces us to see what we would normally assume. But it’s only Burns who says there’s a place culture will not serve you. You’re on your own. This marks a move away from the documentary that’s denotative, declarative, definitive. This is American culture taking on a new structural property. We are letting in indeterminacy. We’ve seen this happen in other kinds of American culture: literature, fiction, poetry, art. Even TV does it now. But documentary filmmaking? That’s new.

post script: In the interests of full disclosure, I’m obliged to say that I am distantly related to Ken Burns. I believe this has had no effect on my impartiality.

The case for culture in business, as clearly and forcefully as I can make it

This is an abbreviation of talk I gave for the design firm Thomas Pigeon in early April.

It puts the “case for culture in business” as forcefully as I can make it. (NB I’m not talking about corporate culture here. I’m talking about culture as in “culture creative.”)

Here’s a summary:

SECTION 1

00:25 capitalism and its creative destruction

00:30 Schumpter
00:54 Alvin Toffler
01:11 Clayton Christensen

01:31 the world is turbulent
…and culture creatives can help

SECTION 2

01:38 strategy struggles

1:44 Peter Schwartz and the corporation in a state of perpetual surprise

1:56 we wake up one morning to discover that our business model can be ripped out from under us

2:00 Michael Raynor and the death of strategy

2:19 Nassim Taleb on black swans and the unimaginable

2:48 these guys are not the least bit defensive (a joke!)

3:07 Andy Grove, here’s how we do strategy now: act like a firehouse

3:24 all that talk of agility is Andy’s firehouse

3:40 strategy is struggling…and we can help

SECTION 3

3:45 corporations and brands are in crisis

3:48 CPG brands especially, all the big brands are down, all of them are struggling to live in this new world

4:00 brands are struggling…and we can help

SECTION 4

4:07 culture to the rescue

this world of commotion gets simpler if you get culture

4:17 getting culture makes the world less “black swany” and less “suprisy”

4:47 we can do better than Andy’s fire house

4:2 culture is the professional competence of the culture creative

4:59 culture is our competitive opportunity

5:02 culture is our difference

5:03 we have always said our difference is creativity and it is but we can’t do great creativity without a connection to culture

creativity requires culture

5:12 creativity that’s not rooted in culture has this calorie-free quality. It’s not lasting, it’s not impactful. It doesnt really change the brand. It doesn’t really touch the consumer, and it doesn’t really resonate with the culture in place.

5:25 that’s when you know there a cycle here: you’ve drawn from culture buy you’ve created something so good, it’s so powerful, it actually contributes to culture

SECTION 5

5:40 culture is 3 things, meanings, rules and motions

6:20 the difference between Roger A and Roger B
(Roger is a dog, he doesn’t have culture. Roger B is a person, he does.)

7:10 Aspies and culture (making conversation in the elevator)

7:44 three purses, one is a Birkin bag worth $14,000

8:18 culture defines how we think about self and the meanings of gender, age, ethnicity, race, and our preoccupation these days with celebrity

8:24…and how we think about groups, style, entertainment and communications are all established by culture

SECTION 6

8:48 is there a Canadian advantage?
Yes, there is (possibly)
e.g., Michael Ennis, Malcolm Gladwell, Marshall McLuhan

SECTION 7:
the case of the artisanal trend

9:08 food after World War II

9:38 the rise of prepared food: Cheese Whiz!

10:02 the artisanal trend itemized

10:38 the artisanal trend created the CPG crisis, it took on prepared food and fast food

10:46 and big brands disrupted by the artisanal
Unilever, Nestle’s, Coca-Cola, P&G taken by surprise

SECTION 8:
How can we help our clients?

11:07 first step: we map culture

11:11 culture too often the latest hippest thing, the coastal stuff, the beltway stuff, the elite stuff

11:23 the recent error of Democratic party

11:46 we want breadth of coverage

11:50 we don’t want to only listen just to the coasts

12:00 second step: choose the meanings (on the map) that really work for the brand?

12:17 which meanings work for the consumer

12:28 third step: now we build an exquisite brand

12:35 fourth step: stage events in the world that create meanings for the world (culturematics: meanings in action)

13:05 fifth step: meanings in motion. we have to track meanings, we need to find metrics. the corporation runs on numbers, all numbers are made with numbers. and when we are asked for numbers we just say just trust us, your career will be fine, your kids will go to college, you can trust us, look how hip our glasses our

13:40 it’s no longer about “refreshing” the brand, we need to be able to show when we want the client to claim this meaning and when to exit the meaning

13:51 We are still inclined to step in, offer a big idea and then leave, as if to say “our work is done”

13:50 what we need to say is “this is when we want you to get into this cultural moment and this is when we want you to get out”

14:02 this is the stuff of an enduring connection with the client

14:27 culture is our competitive advantage, it’s time to see it clearly!

A letter to my culture interns, Jarvis and Donte

I have never had interns before. In fact, I thought there was something wrong with using them. But I now have two.

I will call them Jarvis Rochford and Donte Cole. (Naturally, I can’t use their real names, so I asked the name generator in Scrivener to make suggestions. It would take me a very long time to come up with something better than Jarvis Rochford. I’m just way behind on my historical romances.)

It occurred to me that there might be people out there who would like to act as virtual interns, to follow along at home, as it were.  So this letter is to you, too.

Dear Jarvis and Donte

While we wait for your internships to begin in earnest, I thought I would suggest a couple of things we can do in the meantime.

When you are reading NYT, WSJ, blogs, aggregators, etc., please listen for that small note of surprise that heralds something that doesn’t quite fit. Something on the page or the screen that has caught you by surprise.

The second step is to ask whether it is something or nothing. It’s nothing if it is a “floater,” as it were, a mote in the eye, an artifact of language or logic, but not something in the world. And it’s also “nothing” (for our purposes) if there is some easy, obvious explanation.

It’s something if on closer scrutiny it resists, defies our categories of explanation. The natural explanation here is to dismiss. If something doesn’t conform to our categories, it can’t be the category’s fault. The datum is wrong.

But of course this is the beginning for insight. What would you have to think to make this something make sense, how would you have to change your explanatory models?

There is lots of stuff pouring around out there. I found this in the WSJ the other day.

screenshot

This is what Marc Andreessen calls ‘software eating the world.’ Amazon consuming high street and the mall. An easy explanation then. The thing that struck me was the acceleration. See the data for 2017. The “why” is not mysterious but the “now what?” is. What does the world look like when retail vanishes more and more from the bricks and mortar world? I realize I haven’t really thought about this. I have no obvious answers, no particular way of thinking about the problem. All I (now) know is that it approaches at speed…and I’m not ready.

Retail Reeling is not a perfect example of pure surprise, then. Marc Andreessen put us on notice years ago. But it is a chance to discover that my explanatory models, the sense making apparatus in my head, are not a reliable guide to the world in the works. I’m not ready for what happens to culture and the world once software eats them both.

Here’s something that’s, for me, weirder. I was at a media conference last week. (Thank you, Jacob Groshek for including me in the very interesting Streaming Television and Second Screening Workshop at Boston University.) I came upon a reference to Superwholock.  I checked Google trend to see where it stands in terms of popularity. Gliding gently into obscurity by the look of things.

screenshot

Lots of little questions: why was it invented in the first place? Why did it peak several years ago? Why is it now on the decline?

The categories that activate for me when I look at this are chiefly to do with fanfic. This is a fantastically interesting development, and one measure of the extent to which we are shifting from passive media consumption to something more Jenkensian: an inclination to appropriate and reinvent.

But there are more interesting and particular things to mine from the meme. Have a go at it (or any other meme).

That’s always the game here at cultureby.com. What’s happening “out there?” What are the first signals, the earliest indicators that something has changed? What can it tell us about what is happening “in culture.” And what does that tell us about who and what we are becoming as a world and culture (not always the same thing but always interacting ferociously)?

This turns out to be a long note, and with your permission, Jarvis and Donte, I will put it on line at cultureby.com. There may be people who want to act as virtual interns…or real ones for that matter.

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.

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.

Creator brands: Brands that make culture

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At their most powerful, brands actually make culture. Creator brands, let’s call them.

Nike changed the way we thought about exercise, fitness, bodies and diet in the 1970s and 80s. Most of us look different and feel different for the work that came from this brand and those brilliant meaning-makers at Wieden + Kennedy.

A cluster of brands and industries after World War II helped create “mid century modernism” which in turn shaped how Americans lived and thought of themselves in a very fluid moment. Brands were minting fundamental ideas of who were we were, what we cared about, and how we lived.

In the present day, Uber and AirBnb are changing the way we think about travel and tourism. Netflix is changing the way we think about TV and storytelling.

More often, of course, brands are fellow travelers. They identify what’s happening in the culture and put themselves “in tune” with it.

Subaru and the agency Carmichael Lynch are now brilliantly in tune with culture. They continue to speak to (and speak for) a new feeling for community and family. Now that competitive individualism is in retreat, this is the way Subaru made itself a “brand of the moment.” (This is exceptional work and I hope the brand and agency are being showered with awards. And enjoy them. Principal Financial Group and agency TBWA now threatens to do still better work.)

Sometimes the brand resonates with culture in a painful, unconvincing way, as when a big processed food companies struggles unconvincingly to show us how “artisanal” they are. No one’s buying it, figuratively or literally. The brands of the consumer packaged goods world are really under challenge at the moment. It’s sad because they were so perfectly in tune in the first few decades after World War II.

Getting in touch with culture is hard. Creating culture is harder still. It’s not for the faint of heart or mind. It takes intelligence, imagination, a virtuoso control of the organization, the message, and the moment.

The rewards, on the other hand, are immense. The brand that creates culture becomes a kind of navigational satellite in our world. It becomes one of the places from which we draw our ideas of selfhood and in the Herman Miller case, the work place. Most brands are “meanings made.” Creator brands are meaning makers. They help make the meanings that in turn make us.

With this in mind, I read with interest a wonderful essay in FastCo Design by Diana Budds about Herman Miller and its plan to change our culture.  In the words of CEO Brian Walker, the firm has undertaken a

“shift from being just a contract company or just an industry brand to truly be a powerful lifestyle and consumer lifestyle brand.”

This is the language corporations use when it setting about to change culture. They talk about becoming a lifestyle brand. They are now embarked on styling life.

The trouble with this approach is that many people want to style life but they have no clue about what culture is or how to change it. And you can’t style life unless you are prepared to reckon with culture.

Too often, “lifestyle brand” means slapping a new coat of paint on the brand. Too often lifestyle branding is all “style “and no “life.” The brand remains an PET plastic soda bottle sitting on the surface of the Atlantic, incapable of any sort of real contact (thank goodness). It’s just another contribution to the detritus that flows from the land of bad marketing.

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The good news is that Herman Miller hired a guy called Ben Watson (pictured here with his muse, a beautiful Burmese). Ben is a designer and, at their best, designers are good at helping connect the brand to culture. The best of them have an extraordinary combination of intelligence, imagination, strategy, craft, cunning. They grasp cultural foundations and the cultural moment. They can see culture in all it’s manifestations, intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, material and emergent, and they have a way make these manifest in the brand in a way that points us in new directions, in this case away from old concepts of work and work place to new concepts of work and work place. This makes them a precious, possibly irreplaceably precious, resource. This makes them seerers where the rest of us are blind.

But it doesn’t always go well. Sometimes designers just don’t get culture. Pepsi and Tropicana hired Peter Arnell to “rejuvenate, reengineer, rethink, reparticipate in popular culture,” and Arnell promptly engaged in what BusinessWeek called a “five week world tour of trend design houses.” (More details in Chief Culture Officer, pp. 161 and following).

This is a little like asking an astronomer to look for uncharted planets only to discover that he’s spend his time touring observatories chatting up other astronomers. Yes, of course, you can learn a lot this way, but at some point you have actually have to leave the design world bubble and talk to people who aren’t wearing really cool glasses.  Anything else is threatens to deliver the provincial and parochial. Anything else is an echo chamber.

I don’t know Ben. Let me point out that there is no criticism implied or intended. For all I know, he is absolutely the most gifted “astronomer” in play and Herman Miller’s best chance to change culture. Fingers crossed! (I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that I have done several projects for Herman Miller. For all I know Ben is drawing on my work. In which case, god speed!)

Ben has an extraordinary Nike-esque opportunity. We are in a moment of real cultural confusion. There are several big questions in play. What is “work?” What’s a “workplace?” These things used to be defined by several pretty clear distinctions: work and home, work and play, work and life, public and private, instrumental and expressive, pragmatic and recreational, men and women, hierarchical distinctions of rank, exquisitely clear divisions of labor. nice, neat boundaries of inside and outside, them and us. These cultural meridians once so helpful in defining social life are now well blurred. Blurred? They are thoroughly tangled.

Ben could bring clarity here. He could create a space that accommodates these confusions, that enables what we hope for, and helps to “edit out” what we wish to escape. Ben can made a contribution to Herman Miller and through Herman Miller to us. He can actually clarify our culture. He can humpty-dumpty us back together again. He can help make us ready for a postmodern existence.

What’s especially interesting about Budds’ essay is the attention it gives to the way Herman Miller intends to use retail and display spaces to define the brand and through the brand the rest of us. Designers control the manifestations of culture in the world. And when we give them Herman Miller spaces (and furniture) we give them something with which to work.

Will Ben transform us? Will Herman Miller become a creator brand? It depends to some extent on how well Ben and Herman Miller understand culture. And if manifestations are designers’ strength, culture is, by and large, their weakness.

Post script.

I think we are seeing public space and public events used more and more to stage the brand. Even as we avail ourselves of social media and digital content, we like to make the brand live in the “real world.” (Note to self…and anyone else who’s interested: we need a model that distinguishes all the media and messages at our disposal and shows how we can divide branding work across them.)

I was interested to see the work being done by a Canadian bank called Mojo. Here’s a photo of their interior. As a Canadian I can say with confidence that this is the first time any message even remotely like “IS U REALLY BOUT UR MONEY OR NAH” has even been by a Canadian bank.

Ember Library Mediator

Normally, Canadian banks prefer to look like this:

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Which to be fair is it’s own very particular symbolic statement, and in its moment superbly in tune with Canadian culture.

Thanks to Gerald Forster for the photo of Ben Watson. Gerald is the founder of Here We Go Now.

For more on culture, try this.

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