Before I roll out todays post, may I note that the piece on Anti-Americanism in Canada (Catherine Parrish is a…) continues to draw a lot of attention, with 40 comments and counting. There is an intensity of feeling around this issue I didnt anticipate.
It turns out that the inestimably talented Chuck Freund addressed this issue a couple of weeks ago, when he observed the recent controversy surrounding the proposed sale of the Hudsons Bay Company to the Target. In the Canadian press, Freund detects an anxiety:
[T]hat a voracious and imperial U.S. continues to gobble up the culture, economy, and identity of a nearly defenseless Canada. The portrayal of the U.S. as the corrupt, grasping, and stupid giant next door seems to be in 24-hour rotation in the Canadian media, in whatever news guise happens to be available.
Freund may have put his finger on it. Perhaps this is a source of the anti-American hostility in Canada, the fear that Canada must fall before the American predator. May I say, editorially, that the way most countries secure their claims to identity and nationhood is not preventing the sale of department stores, but burning bright with creative energy and accomplishment. But then, poor Canada quite often asks for protected status and so creates a certain vulnerability, and the anxieties attached there to.
Find Freunds whole post here .
Ok, here’s today’s post:
When I was working at a Museum, curatorial staff members were always ‘telling stories. They particularly liked to tell the one about the “lost office. Over the main entrance, there was an office occupied by the director, but at some point the museum decided to close it off and brick it up. I am pretty sure they let the director leave first, but, museum politics being what they are, you never know.
The lost office makes a great story. It fills peoples heads with Spielbergian fantasies. What would the office, locked behind its stone wall, look like now? Cobwebs everywhere, ancient artifacts unturned in the corner, and, no doubt, the last words of the director, scratched into the surface of his mahogany desk moments before he expired. The imagination loves dark, forgotten, historical spaces, and this one is perfect.
Curators tell this story with what Silverstein might call “pragmatic intent. They giving the visitor “insider knowledge and a little badge of membership in the charmed circle of museum life. We can be quite sure that the visitor then passes the little story along to other visitors, and claims the “social capital that results. Like gazes, little stories form a small economy filled with value creation and value capture.
Every institution has these stories, and they all work pretty much the same way. They are one of the ways we induct people into the organization. Im guessing that if we join Microsoft, we would be told little stories about “Bill. These stories communicate essential secrets about the organization. And they drive the people at Human Resources crazy. HR has an official story of the corporation to tell, but little stories almost always tell another side of things. And too often, they get to shape the corporate culture.
These stories are charming even when they are wrong. They are quirky, imaginative, and captivating. (“Really, hes still locked in there?) But what they really do is to let us to divide the world into insiders and outsiders, the ones who know the oral culture and those who dont, the ones who belong, and the drudges on the inside looking in. Little stories are the stuff of membership.
So what in Gods name did the University of Chicago Alumni Magazine think it was doing in the most recent issue? In a piece called “Myth Information, Joseph Liss systematically reviews and debunks the stories that circulate on campus. Like the one that says that Ida Noyes Hall was founded when poor Ida Noyes was badly treated by campus sororities and committed suicide. Or the one that says that parts of the basement of Regenstein Library are still radioactive as a result of the nuclear reaction that Enrico Fermi created in 1942.
As a former student there, I can tell you we loved these stories. We embraced the idea that Fermis “gift allowed us to glow in the dark and find our way home after a tough night of study. Glasses raised, we would toast poor Ida at Jimmys bar. We liked these stories not least because they made us a part of an institution that was, truth be told, pretty hard to belong to.
Like every great university, the U of C is a grueling, difficult place. A local joke asks, “how do you tell the difference between the undergraduates and graduates on campus? Answer: the undergraduates are the ones talking to themselves, driven slightly mad by the unrelenting demands of the college program. Most of us felt like we were there on sufferance. One bad paper, a stupid remark in seminar, and they would send us packing. The University of Chicago gave membership stintingly, and little stories were one way we made our own connection. We might be one error away from ejection, but, hey, we knew the story about Ida Noyes.
Enter Joseph Liss and his debunking article. Most of the oral tradition at Chicago turns out to be false. No doubt, it was satisfying to bring the light of reason to our Pope-ish superstition, but, really, Mr. Liss, what have you accomplished? You have stripped the institution of an essential resource and the very stuff of membership. You have denied students the small points of purchase that secured them in a vertiginous world. Well done, Mr. Liss. I believe that one way the university can make amends is by walling you into an office somewhere that the oral tradition might once again begin to flourish.
Liss, Joseph. 2004. Myth Information. The University of Chicago Magazine. August. 2004. here
Silverstein, Michael. 1976. Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description. in Meaning in Anthropology. editors Keith H. Basso, and Henry A. Selby, 11-55. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.