The “things that don’t go together” game, installment 2

Things_that_totally_dont_go_togethe I was looking at the entry for Dave Eggers’s book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Part way down the page, Amazon offered one of its "Best Value" recommendations.  (It’s one of those "buy this second book for a price reduction" kind of things.)  The second book was by Alan Alda’s Never Have your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I’ve Learned.  (Sorry this image is so little.  Clicking on it may help.)

If there are two things that don’t go together it’s Dave Eggers and Alan Alda. 

Eggers is a network of activities, large pieces loosely joined, and these include his fiction (most recently What is What), a publishing house (McSweeney’s), his non fiction (most recently, Surviving Justice), his literary journal (McSweeney’s), teaching (at 826 Valencia), screen writing, artwork (for Thrice), whistling (on Aimee Mann’s forthcoming album), and editing (see his The Best American Nonrequired Reading series). 

Alda is an actor and most famous for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series Mash. He has won 5 Emmies, 6 Golden Globes and one academy award nomination. Alda was born Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo in the Bronx in 1936.  He survived Polio as a child, went to school in White Plains, graduated from Fordham, and served in Korea.  He was perhaps the most genial celebrity of the 1970s and 1980s, and he was for many a model of the new male when gender categories were really in flux. 

Clearly, they are both gifted players in the cultural domain.  But trying to think about them at the same time is hard.  Ok, it’s impossible. So of course we don’t.  We are dissonance shy.  Trying to think of Eggers and Alda in the same thought, it’s a good way to f*ck yourself up.

More grandly, it’s all very Foucault out of Borges.  Recall the encyclopedia taxonomy that caught their attention, the one that divides animals into the following categories: a) belonging to the emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, … k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.  Foucault chuckled at this, asking us to consider the "sheer impossibility of thinking that." 

Eggers and Alda are only a taxonomy of two categories, but it still confronts us with the "sheer impossibility of thinking that."

Of course, if you are a post modernist, you confront this odd couple with the sure conviction that the epistemological sky is falling.  This is all very well for those snobs from the continent, the ones who are all too happy to dance on the grave of Western culture.  (And let us forget our suspicions of a hidden motive, specically that if the France and its intellectuals are not going direct Western culture, as appeared to be inevitable in the 19th century, damn it, then no one’s going to.)  But this won’t do for the hard working social scientist who has actually to account for his or her findings, and then press them into service in the world.

And it is precisely here that things that don’t go together make themselves useful.  They force us to put two pins at either ends of the map and to marvel at how much terrain there is between.  There are two possibilities.  One of them is a kind of Clay Shirky problem.  This one says what if we insist that this is a problem, how do we discover a hidden commonality.  What does this new category tell us about the world?  This is another way of reverse programming the Amazon pairing routine. 

The other is the more frankly anthropological problem.  In this case, we marvel out of different, how obviously anti-categorical these items are.  And now we really have our world cut out for us.  What if we had to give driving instructions to a Martian, so that it could traverse all that distance between Eggers and Alda. Where would we start?  What would we say? 


Dave Eggers according to Wikipedia here

Dave Eggers according to McSweeneys here

Alan Alda according to Wikipedia here

Foucault, Michel.  2001.  The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the human sciences.  New York: Routledge. 

McCracken, Grant.  2008.  Mr. Rogers, the US Senate, Mary Baker Eddy, a sneaker sanctum: just another day in the neighborhood.  {installment 1 of the "things that don’t go together" game.]  This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  February 1, 2008.  here

6 thoughts on “The “things that don’t go together” game, installment 2

  1. Vincent LaConte

    Very interesting juxtaposition indeed. I don’t think I’m alone in saying the following either: subjectively, I have equally but oppositely mixed feelings about Alda and Eggers. Alda I respect for maintaining a certain integrity throughout a mainstream career, an Accessibility, even if feigned (and I don’t assume it is). He is the consummate Nice Guy but performs well behind the performative Fourth Wall.

    Converseley, Eggers is cantankerous, inaccessible to the public, nearly faceless if you’ve not found his few Google Images grabs or seen him in a rare interview, eschews “integrity” as an artist in favor of “authenticity” (or some would say, drily, “irony”). He is the consummate Bastard Writer and performs best behind a real wall of near hermit-like reclusiveness and anti-publicism.

    Among my father’s generation, Alda was a hero for his characteristics above. In my generation, Eggers is a hero for just the inverse (converse?) reasons.


  2. Marc

    That taxonomy might be familiar to some people but it was new for me and had me giggling for about 10 minutes. Thanks Vincent.
    =) Marc

  3. Matt

    Have you read the book “Everything is Miscellaneous”? I suspect the author, David Weinberger, would have no problem with with this taxonomy, since he argues that we still classify things based on physical characteristics. Books especially. Fiction over here, non-fiction over there. But online, he argues, everything can go with everything.

    In the case of this Amazon connection, I wonder if enough people both tagged the books as ‘clever’.

  4. Donald A. Coffin

    Not exactly on subject, but those pairings that Amazon recommends? You don’t save anything by buying them together…the “paired” price is the same as the individual prices added together. Does anyone fall for that?

  5. Lana

    I don’t know, Grant…
    My guess is that is goes a little something like this:
    Eggers/McSweeneys is very NPR
    NPR is very West Wing/Alda
    Not too far a walk!

  6. Hamish MacEwan

    While I enjoyed the post, and agree that in total Eggers compared to Alda might engender some dissonance, the Amazon example is one domain and a single match. Given our diversity, it is not surprising some overlap might exist. At a more general level, they are both men, and mortal, possibly fathers, certainly both sons.

    While the differences are intriguing, it shouldn’t surprise us that there are commonalities.

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