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 its 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 dont 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 dont 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.
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.