Tag Archives: Peter Spear

Who will be our ethnographic hero?

There is now only one path to the White House for Donald Trump. There has to be a Brexit-type surprise in November.

This is the hope of the Republican party faithful. When confronted with numbers that show Hilary in the lead and the refusal of their candidate to pivot to a more presidential presentation of self, this is what they say. There is massive support out there. We just can’t see it. Because conventional polling cannot pick it up. People are concealing their real intentions. Trump will win.

The only person outside the Republican tent I’ve heard make this argument is Megan Murphy of Bloomberg who last night on Charlie Rose said,

Putting this into the context of Brexit, [I wondered] ‘are we all getting this wrong?’ [Maybe] something much more profound and disruptive is going on… and this is going to be a moment when the establishment is broken. And not just the Republican establishment but establishment writ large. … Even we can’t step back and see the profound dislocation that’s going on.

Ethnographers consume this kind of problem for breakfast. The clipboard crew are obliged to take an answer at its face. But ethnographers live to dig. We are always looking for the world of meaning, the hidden assumptions, the basic thinking beneath the first reply. The clipboard crew has a box to check. We dig and dig and dig.

There is no hiding from an ethnographer. We can see inside your head and heart. We can tell what you’re really thinking. This is not interrogation. We don’t force you to tell. We just let you talk long enough until your lies begin to come apart, until their is a mountain of evidence about what you really think, whatever you just said to the pollster.

There is a HUGE opportunity for some ethnographer to make herself the hero of the moment. Someone who can talk to people who claimed “no opinion” and find the “shy” Trump supporters out there, the Trump supporter under deep cover. Spot them and map them, dear ethnographer, and, well, celebrity awaits you.

This is the stuff of which national reputations are made. Come up with this answer , and you become a national hero. To be the person who in late August says, “Trump will win. The ethnographic data tell us so. You may now adore me and don’t forget to consult me every Sunday morning forever and ever amen.” This could be the beginning of your Nate Silver ascension. And it wouldn’t it be grand to have a ethnographer who could do for qualitative data what Mr. Silver has done for quantitative data?

The problem is that we don’t always have the courage of our convictions. We are nervous nellies. I like to think that the reason that I don’t take on the challenge is that I have two projects on the go that are going to turn August and September into a forced march…but the truth is also that I am a nervous nelly.

This is a call the best and the bravest of the ethnographic world. A couple of names come to mind: Samantha Ladner, Steve Portigal, dana boyd, Patti Sunderland, German Dziebel, Ken Habarta, Panthea Lee, Jan Chipchase, David Art Wales, Peter Spear, Griffin Farley, Bob Morais, Carol Greenhouse, Phil Buehler, Jamie Gordon. (Apologies to those who are not on this list. This was totally top of mind.) People who are prepared to swing for the fences. Or maybe we are all of us nervous nellies. Who else can we turn to? Morgan Spurlock? Redscout?

Someone, please. If Trump is going to be the next president of the United States, we have to stop saying the thing that pundits have been saying for months now, “Oh, that can’t possibly happen and here’s why…” Because it could possibly happen. And if it does happen, we have to fire up our what-if machines and make ready for a very different world.

Who will be our hero?

[This post appeared first on Medium.]

A secret artist in our midst

I live in a little Connecticut town called Rowayton.  We were briefly the Oyster capital of the world.  We also played midwife to the first business computer.

But nothing much has happened in the last 50 years.  

Until now.  

We have a talent in our midst. And that talent is turning our train station into an art gallery.  

Here’s what I found a couple of days ago while waiting for my train to NYC.

Here’s a closer view.

It’s corny to say so, but it made me think of this Da Vinci self portrait.

I don’t know if these photos tell the story, but this image has been placed on the platform by a process of dripping / pouring that deprives the artist of absolute control.  Its a technique that forces a loose hand working in a single session.  Virtuosity gives vivacity. The face that comes up out of concrete (of all things).  A knowing, unforgiving, bird-of-prey gaze.  

And it commandeers a handy thought bubble: “mind the gap.”  What, you mean the artistic life of little Rowayton?  Consider it minded!  Occupied and then some.  

Several months ago, when the dreadful Donald Trump was everywhere on screen and in print.  This image appeared on an ad in the station.  

The artist removed Trump’s photographed face and inserted a Dorian Gray revelation of the man within.  Porcine Donald.  And what a pig he is.  

Someone with artistic detective skills might be able to determine whether Mind the Gap comes from the same hand as Dorian Donald.  And, as you can guess, I am really hoping it does.  And not just because it would be wonderful to think that someone has turned our train station into an art gallery.  

It’s all very Culturematic so naturally I’m thrilled.  But, look, I’d be thrilled in any case.  I spend some part of the spring talking to Peter Spear and Rainer Judd about a project that would encourage the eruption of art in small town America and here someone drops this under my very nose.   

It is a Culturematic because it converts a train station into an art gallery.  Culturematics are almost always opportunistic and cunning in this way.  But it also turns our train system, Metro North, into a delivery system for art lovers everywhere.  As long as someone can find the line, they can count on effortless and precise delivery!  

Let me know you’re coming and I will put on my docent costume and meet you there. Gallery station memberships are reasonable so don’t forget your credit card!

Reenchanting the world, one green hand at a time

See the green hand? It’s there in the foreground of the photo, in the middle of an intersection in my little town.

It stopped me in my tracks this morning. It reminded me of discussions I had this summer with Peter Spear and Rainer Judd.

We were working on a project designed to stage dramatic and the counter-expectational outbreaks in a couple of towns on the eastern seaboard. (It does sound a little pretentious phrased this way, I know. Believe me when I say we were serious, sincere and not in any way carrying on or showing off.)

Our working idea: that all the creativity nurtured by and staged in the digital world in the last couple of decades is now prepared to bust out into the world. This meant specifically, that outbreaks of reckless creativity should now be able to happen anywhere, even in a small town on the eastern seaboard.

We had a measure of success. If we succeeded, we would have increased the possibility that any time a town member subsequently encountered something lingering at the edge of consciousness, something “odd, accidental, and ‘nothing, probably,’” they would be more inclined to treat it as “something, possibly,” and to attend to it.

If our project succeeded, we would have expanded the realm of the possible in this little town. This is in and off itself a good thing but we also believed that making the odd and accidental more interesting, we would also have struck a blow for what Max Weber called the “reenchantment of the world.”

It is our belief that a lot of creativity starts as a stray signal on the edge of work-a-day reality and ordinary thought. It is when we credit these stray signals and declare them worthy objects of our curiosity, that good things happen. Creativity becomes more possible. Innovation easier.

Indeed, that “box” everyone is always talking about gets easier “to get out of.” This might indeed be the very thing a small town on the eastern seaboard, especially if it finds itself captive of the rust belt and in need of recuperation.


Anyhow, you can’t work on a project like this and not remark upon a green hand when it appears in the middle of an intersection in your home town.  If it was a green hand.  
 
If it was a green hand, where was it pointing?  What was it saying? I thought I might be able to use the Google image search function.  And here’s what I got.  
 
Nothing helpful, I don’t think, unless I am failing to read one of these images as the next link in a series of images that must eventually reveal the significance of the green hand.  
 
Everytime I say “the green hand” I hear, in my mind’s ear, the sound of a church organ being used to exclamation effect, you know the kind of thing they do on a soap opera.  (I think these are called “suspense chords.”)  And this made me wonder if there was some connection between the green hand (suspense chord!) and the fact that the house in town once occupied by the man who wrote the Shadow was just knocked down.  I mean, like Thursday of last week.  On the other hand, there’s a remote possibility I’m over-thinking this.  
 
Wikipedia has three “takes” on the Green Hand.
 
A green hand may refer to:
  • a term for an inexperienced crew member of a 19th-century whaler on his first voyage, and who would typically have the smallest “lay”, or share, in the profits.

All of these are appealing, but being an anthropologist I am obliged to put my money on the middle one, the family of hobbits.  And this would tell us, I guess, that the hand in the intersection marks the spot where, were one to dig, there would be revealed a place containing hobbits.  And that would be great.  Because our town doesn’t have enough hobbits.  Actually, I don’t believe we have any hobbits.  

I will close with another stray signal that appeared some months ago in Rowayton. It appears to be a panda.  It is tiny, obscurely located, and repeated no where else in town.  I puzzle over it every time I pass it on Sammis Street.  Now of course I know there’s a pretty good chance it’s the work of hobbits.  But if anyone else has another explanation, please sing out.  It’s a very fine piece of work, not just a panda, but a panda descending as if from on high, luminous, with a choir singing richly.  (You know, one of those revelation chords!)