how to blog like an anthropologist III


Yesterday, I treated the foundational work with which bloggers can document contemporary cultural in a Pepysian way. Today, some final observations on a more opportunistic method from the anthropological “play book.”

I had the good fortune once to sit with Marshall Sahlins (above), the great anthropologist at the University of Chicago, as he read one of my essays. In the tutorial tradition of Oxbridge, he was sharing his reactions to my essay by audibilizing them. It was a little depressing to hear how effortlessly he dispatched the passages of which I was most proud, and how quickly and remorselessly he identified the ones I had struggled to get right. Sahlins picked both up on the fly, approving and more often disapproving as he went.

The best moments occurred when this “beautiful mind” found something that did not effortlessly submit itself to comprehension. Sahlins came to a dead stop. All fluidity ceased. And now the audible was “why is that, I wonder?”

This was, I have to tell you, breathtaking. It was no credit to me. It was not that I had written something especially interesting or intelligent. No, what caught Sahlins’ attention was a stray remark and what stopped him cold was that the stray remark would not herd. A lesser mind would have assimilated the passage to an existing category on a kind of “close enough is good enough” basis. But Sahlins stopped. What he was doing was allowing counter-expectational data work back upon his expectations. (At least, this is what I think he was doing. You are listening to a minor talent making assumptions about a major talent.) I thought I could hear Sahlins thinking, “why can I not think this? What would I need to think to think this?”

This seems to me the first order of business for an anthropologist, especially one working in his or her own culture. The problem here is that we know our own culture “down to the ground.” It operates in us invisibly, shaping our understanding the world, supplying the large and small rules of social interaction, and otherwise making the world make sense. (We discover what the world is like without this cultural intervention when we visit other places and interact with other people.) To see our culture, we must wait for the world to resist it. We must wait to be surprised.

Surprise is a good indicator of a blogging opportunity. We have been poking along in the world, and suddenly we encounter something stray, the observation that will not herd. I was at the vet yesterday. Molly my kitten needed shots. The vet, newly graduated and in her late 20s, was talking about flea medicine, because, as she put it, fleas are a “bummer.” My surprise device went off with a little ping. “Bummer?” I thought, “since when does a twentysomething use terminology minted in the 1960s?”

The blog is half done. That there is generationally specific lingo does not surprise me. (In the perfect Sahlinsian instance, it would.) We all know that generations have their own lingo, but we know it without much thinking about it or, more to the point, blogging about it. But “bummer” from a twentysomething throws the lingo thing into relief. Suddenly, a little piece of culture breaks free and comes swimming into view.

Now it’s time to round up the usual suspicions. Has there always been generationally specific lingo in Western societies. I am pretty sure Victorians did it. How about the 18th century? Are some generations more inventive than others and why? Do we see an intensification of this phenomenon? Is the present day more or less inventive than say the 50s or the 80s? Is there an intensification of lingo happening within generations? And, at the limit, could we someday see a time that is so linguistically inventive that generations must struggle to communicate across the generational divide and perhaps even within a single generation? Chances are we don’t have answers to these questions, but anthropological blogging is often about raising questions, and, in the process, giving us a chance to make culture swim into view.

In short, the blog entry begins with that little ping of surprise that comes from the stray remark that will not herd, the datum that defies expectation, the observation that does not fit. Most of the time, most of us let this slide. There is no ping of surprise, because we are dumb as posts. Or there is a ping but we don’t do what Sahlins did: stop and ask “what just happened. How did the world just resist my expectations?”

For the anthropological blogger, pattern recognition begins with variation recognition. This is our warning system that says something in the world is not quite right. But we may use it as an internal editor ever eager to identify a new “story idea.”

post script:

just got a comment from Nigel Mellish on the “pre fab culture” post (December 8, 2002) on clams. Nigel supplies a nice ethnographic observation:

Saturday Night Live, at it’s prime, was the worst distributor of clams. I recall in middle school how, on Monday morning, everyone would attempt to be the first to use the newly introduced (or semi-cleverly recycled) clam into conversation. Nothing was worse than picking the wrong sketch “clam” that you thought was particularly funny but no one else found humorous. I guess that was a “bad clam”?

It strikes me this is a great way for us to begin building a common body of data and observation. Each of us posts an anthropological entry and then all of us weigh in with observations like the one from Nigel. A hundred years from now the historians will stumble upon our cash of data, our message in a bottle. Pepys status for all!

post script II:

There is a great post by Brian at Redbird Nation in which he gives a very nice grammar of baseball “voice over” commentary by analyzing the things that announcers do wrong. This is not quite the anthropology of every day life, but it is a great treatment of the great institution of baseball, and historians in 100 years will use it direct the eye and deepen their analysis.

9 thoughts on “how to blog like an anthropologist III

  1. Owners Manual

    I wonder how much generational language depends of the delayed onset of adulthood? If childhood was so truncated before the 1900s that ‘clams’ were nursery rhymes and all else was learning to talk like a grownup?

  2. LK

    re generational language and adult-lescents…i.e. the delayed onset of adulthood…there’s also the flipside to be considered, namely when parody and satire is built into so much of popular culture and little kids only know the satirical version not the original to which it refers, and incorporate it into their repertoire as “theirs”. a friend’s 6 year old son routinely says stuff to me like “too much information…T M I !!” and “what is this, a republican fundraiser?” because he sees this stuff getting laughs in shrek, the simpsons, etc.

  3. Steve Portigal

    We used to call that “cultural reverse engineering” – a lack of awareness of what is original and what is homage. People insisted that scene in “Bob Roberts” where Tim Robbins does a music video in alleyway was a play on the INXS video with the words on cards, when of course both were references to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from “Don’t Look Back.” And people in fact would get irate and defend their point of reference.

    Me, I’ve learned a lot about Christianity from the Flanders on the Simpsons, American politics from Neil Young (“keep hope alive” – Jesse Jackson said that!!) and much of the 70s from Mad Magazine.

    There used to be this joke going around, it was on the Internet, but may have actually existed offline.

    Did you know Paul McCartney had a band before Wings? [a 70s-era joke about his new popularity that the “kids” didn’t get]
    Paul McCartney was on “Wings”? [a 90s-era joke about how forgotten Wings became]
    What the hell was “Wings” [the forgettable nature of sitcoms]

    Okay. Nuff.

  4. Grant

    Dear Owner’s manual: M, great point, we have to allow for the “invention of childhood” and, yes, those nursery rhymes were the equivalent and deeply shared across the generations. Thanks, grant

    Dear Leora and Steve, good point, there is lots of stuff in unacknowledged circulation, so a new generation might cease on something as their own, but other generations would have no trouble recognizing it. Now that popular culture is so circulating and self referencing, maybe distinctness falls away. Thanks, Grant

  5. Nigel Mellish

    “Has there always been generationally specific lingo in Western societies. I am pretty sure Victorians did it. How about the 18th century? Are some generations more inventive than others and why?”

    it’s very easy to “off the cuff” (I crack myself up, sorry) to answer the first question in the affirmative. I can think of evidence that pre-dates the 18th century in literature, nursery rhymes and music very quickly. It, of course, also depends on your definition of “generation”, as well.

    If I had to make an uneducated guess, I would suppose that significant changes in generationally specific lingo would surround significant disruptive change – force majeur, technological advances, political changes, etc…

    Depending on your definition of “inventive”, I would also guess that the 20th century would be more so than other centuries. Technological change in the past century not only led to increased communications, but a federalization of culture.

    My great hope for the Internet, and similarly the individual blog, was that it would begin the destruction of this federalization, allowing sub-cultures to thrive and multiply so rapidly that traditional “clam-generators” would be rendered irrelevant. This sub-culture diversity and the underlying Internet technology would hopefully inspire individuals to leave their enclave of federalized culture and expand their horizons (as an example, I came upon this website from a link on a baseball website). Seeing what’s happened to the popularity of the traditional sit-com, I can only hope we’re seeing the beginning of this decentralization.

    However, the pessimist in me thinks that the Internet is only serving as a vehicle for the younger generation to produce their own culture of the lowest common denominator, and that number is very, very, low (to wit, the “weekend forums” segment of

  6. Grant

    Nigel! well said. I like your term “federalization” and I share your hope that the internet will encourage plenitude. Let’s keep our eyes peeled for same. The net should allow them to flourish but it also makes them really hard to find. Best (and thanks again) Grant

  7. Liz

    I was visiting here, and then I hopped over to Cliopatria (the author, Timothy Burke, is also present at Easily Distracted)

    But what Moretti generally proposes to do speaks exactly to one of the areas where cultural history is typically weak, and that is the inability of cultural historians to make meaningful or confident statements about what is typical or proportionate with regard to any given kind of text or cultural practice, and equally, their inability to offer large-scale or systematic accounts of the circulation and consumption of particular cultural works in relation to all other cultural works in a given era or society.

    Some cultural historians do a good job of finding quantitative or systematic information about their particular object of study—a particular kind of publication, text or cultural work, a particular genre, a particular site of cultural consumption. Sometimes cultural historians are able to offer tentative characterizations of the relationship between one form or type of cultural work and other forms, or of relations to the totality of popular culture, but these statements are usually just educated guesswork.

    So we all need to figure out how to send signals to each other when conversation would be fruitful.

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