The ‘wicked grin’ test (as a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

Eat, Pray, Love (repeat as necessary)

I finally had a look in on Eat, Pray, Love, the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert that sold 4 milllions copies in paperback and this summer became a movie starring Julia Roberts.  (I know I am late to this, but, as an anthropologist who studies contemporary culture, I’m trying to keep up with everything.)

Three things struck me.  

1. This book is tremor material.  It begins with a repudiation.

Wasn’t I proud of all we [Gilbert and husband had] accomplished–the prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the apartment in Manhattan, the eight phone lines, the friends and the picnics and the parties, the weekends spent roaming the aisles of some box-shaped superstore of our choice, buying ever more appliances on credit?  I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life–so why did I feel like none of it resembled me?  Why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper, and the social coordinator and the dog walker and the wife and the soon-to-be mother, and — somewhere in my stolen moments–a writer…?

This is a thoroughgoing "no" to the consumer society, and I couldn’t help wondering whether we shouldn’t read the immense popularity of Eat, Pray, Love as an indicator of seditious thoughts and impending realities.  

No one is very keen on revolution in a downturn, but come the return to prosperity, it’s just possible we will have fewer takers than usual.  We may be looking at what Mohamed El-Erian, a prince of the investment markets, calls the "new normal," a time in which people swear off material goods.  I’m on record as arguing that there will be no enduring new normal, but Gilbert’s book gave me pause, as tremors will.  

But Gilbert is saying "no" to more than the consumer society.  She is actually saying "no" to husbands, babies and suburbs, and "yes" to a spiritual quest.  And if this is what speaks to 4 million readers, then we are could be on the verge of cultural revolution that resembles in the late 60s or the early 90s.  

Wow!  In our culture, many things are possible.  So the anthropologist (and fellow traveller) must keep track of everything happening at the moment AND all the alternatives this present will smuggle as stow-aways into the future.  At the moment, it feels like we live in a relatively orthodox cultural moment, but then the present always has this "home field" advantage.

The "now" comes equipped with its own feeling of inevitability.  But let’s not give in to this feeling. It’s a trickster in our midst.  The trickster that pretends it isn’t.  Or to borrow, and adapt, the immortal language of The Usual Suspects, ‘the greatest trick that culture ever played was to persuade us that it doesn’t exist.’

2.  Gilbert, a creature of her time.  Gilbert’s quest feels to me a little like the traditional mission of the avant-garde artist. She is keen to discover her real self, the one concealed by a middle class commitment to husbands, babies and suburbs.  But it’s not long before we see that she is also a postmodernist.  For she is searching not for a single self, but for several of them.

This is a book about eating, praying AND loving.  Gilbert seeks her self in Italy, India AND Indonesia.  Gilbert  is tempted along the way to cultivate one of these existential modalities. But no. She refuses to choose.  

The great Sufi poet and philosopher Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most wanted in life.  If any item on the list clashes with any other item, Rumi warned, you are destined for unhappiness.  Better to live a life of single-pointed focus, he taught. … What if you could somehow create an expansive enough life that you could synchronize seemingly incongruous opposites into a worldview that excludes nothing. …  I wanted worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence–the dual glories of a human life.

This is the postmodern voice.  When told that one ‘life choice,’ one ‘self choice,’ must cost us the other, the postmodernist says, "I refuse to choose.  I will have them all."

Thus when Elvis Mitchell asked Steven Soderbergh how he prepared for the movie Out of Sight, the director said he said to himself, "If you blow this, you will be doing art-house movies for the rest of your life and that’s as bad as doing big budget things.  I wanted to do both."  Choosing between art house and big budget, this was the cross on which filmmakers of a previous generation had crucified themselves.  Because in those days you had to choose.  Not Soderbergh, and not Gilbert.  Not any of us.  Postmodernists don’t.  

3.  Gilbert, perhaps an architect of her time?  Understanding Steven Soderbergh and people like him was the mission of a book I published a couple of years ago called Transformations: constructing identity in contemporary culture.  My anthropological mission was to figure out how to describe a culture in which people claimed this kind of latitude and liberty for themselves.  

This book ends with my account of something I call "expansionary individualism."  This is too grand a term, to be sure.  It came to me while sitting in Central Park beside the reflecting pool.  Some guy was sending a small wooden sailing ship out across the water, and just as it was about to crash into the concrete lip of the pool, he would catch it and push it out again. And I thought to myself, "Hey, c’est moi.  My life in a nut shell (and reflecting pool). Journeys don’t end neatly.  Moments before disaster, I just push off again."  

This is what it’s like to live lives in a culture of expansionary individualism: selves accumulate, experiments come and go, things get messy and stay messy.  We just keep going.  My favorite description came from someone, I forget who, who said, "my self is like a low rent motel.  There are many people living here, we are not all on speaking terms, and frankly everyone’s a little alarmed by the guy in 2C."  (It seemed to me apt that so much of Christopher Nolan’s Memento was shot in a motel.)  

Perfect.  Postmodernism would have to result, I supposed, in disorder, multiciplity in mess. But that’s not how Gilbert sees it.  Her mission was a quest not just for many selves but for a harmony between them.  Hey, presto.  Artist to the rescue.  No sooner have we invented a culture of commotion than an artist steps up and suggests a way we might return to order. That is, I guess, what we pay them for. 

References

Gilbert, Elizabeth. 2010. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Penguin.  (Kindle location 360-374 for first quote, 686-699 for second)

 McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. Indiana University Press.  

Rich, Motoko. 2009. “Eat, Pray, Love. Then What? Get Married.” The New York Times, August 20 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/20/books/20book.html?_r=1 (Accessed August 3, 2010).  (source for sales figures.)

Apologies

I can’t find the source for the Soderbergh / Mitchell quote.