Enniful took the helm of British Vogue in 2017. He was determined to make Vogue about diversity, disruption, inclusivity, and lots of experiment. He wanted a Vogue that was a champion of women and especially the young.
“disruption is important, because that’s the only way the world can move forward. To the younger generation, I want to say ‘be as fearless as you can and disrupt in your own way.’”
In a word he was fearless. He had no doubt that
“I’m probably going to get fired for making it inclusive, but at the same time I thought that would be great. Because at least I would have been true to myself.”
As a culture, we are very good at disruption. Even at an institution as important as Vogue.
We are so good at disruption that we are now testing the limits of our culture to cohere.
“[Enniful] was always pushing for the next thing that was seen as progressive, but I think the magazine started to lose itself in the process. He was following fads. It was no longer recognizable from the Vogue that he walked into,” a Condé Nast employee told The Spectator.
There it is.
A man called Enniful is determined to transform Vogue even at the cost of his career and the opportunity someday to take the helm at the great fashion publication.
A magazine pushes back, fearful that it will be consumed by fads and politics.
The answer used to be easy. All praise and power to the disruptor. All hail Enniful.
But these days it’s not so simple. However much we value the politics, we are on the verge of “losing” ourselves. We want a “via media”, a middle road, to use the famous phrase of one of the England’s first great fashion icons, Elizabeth I.
As the academic world continues its slow motion descent into financial and sometimes intellectual insolvency, some anthropologists seek employment in the world of business.
The Journal of Business Anthropology asked me to describe my experience. Here is what I wrote for them.
But first, here’s an image from the field. It’s me talking to respondents who were too busy to sit for an ethnographic interview. “That’s ok,” I said. “I can interview you at the gym.” In the world of business, anthropology thy name is opportunism.
Just In Time How to be an anthropologist in business
I assume I am talking to anthropologists who spend some, much, or most of their career outside the academic world. I assume that my job is to offer advice on one of the ways this can be done.
For starters, I should say that I don’t think of myself as a business anthropologist. My plan was to use business consulting to finance my anthropology.
I consult half the year and write half the year. The first half pays for the second. COVID was going to make my income disappear. I don’t have much of a cushion. Bankruptcy now beckoned.
What COVID threatened to take away, it would also give, I hoped, in the form of an opportunity to study the American family in a moment of confinement. I’ve studied this family for some 30 years, with particular attention to its material culture and build form. I look in from time to time, most recently to figure out that “what” and the “why” of the great room.
Surely COVID would test this family and home. Surely it would force deformation and reformation. This is the first revelation of studying the American family and home. They are feverish works in progress. Americans are here, as elsewhere, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants inventors.
My favorite example: an African American single mother of modest means who had used her local zoo as a place to amuse and instruct her kids (a pre-teen boy and girl). COVID closed the zoo. So she bought a guinea pig which she told me did a surprisingly good job standing in for the zoo. (I remember putting the phone down and having a good cry.)
So the intellectual opportunity was obvious: I could go see what COVID would mean to the family. What was happening to house, home and kinship under these extraordinary stresses?
But unless this study was also a commercial opportunity I was done for financially. Surely, I thought, industry would want to know what was happening in the family. And for the first time in my career, I was soliciting work instead of waiting for it. Plus I was undertaking my anthropological work for commercial return. (Normally, I merely solve the problem the client has for me…and return to an anthropology that’s entirely my own.)
The work returned many points of interest. The most striking finding was that mothers and daughters had found one another. Mothers said, “I have my daughters back.” They meant back from college and back from the preoccupations, digital, social and athletic, of being a teenager and a preteen. Mothers and daughters were, they said, “talking, sharing, connecting.” (I think this may leave us with a new degree or kind of matrifocality.)
Moms were clearly the heroes of these scenarios. Guinea pigs were just the beginning of their creativity. Building new relationships with the daughters were not be any means their biggest accomplishment. Mom (when it was a mom) got the family through a horrible time.
I mentioned “mom heroism” to anyone who would listen: friends, colleagues, journalists. Their response was surprise. People seemed to say, “But this is what moms do.” And clearly it is what moms do, but it remains I think odd that they should get so little credit. Even in this time of peril, even as they did heroic things, what they got was “That’s moms for you.”
A note on method
You see things like guinea pigs standing in for a zoo, and moms rising to the occasion, fleetingly, because nothing happens in the consulting world that’s not a blur. It is only because you will go back to the same terrain, and because ethnography comes with an “extra data” opportunity, that we can use consulting work for anthropology purposes. (FN: https://cultureby.com/2006/09/ethnography_and.html.)
“Fleetingly” is pretty much our modus operandi as anthropologists in business. We are trained to dwell, interrogate, contextualize and variously worry the data until it’s thinkable and then presentable. Anything less invites the scorn of our colleagues and a certain self loathing. Indeed, “fleetingly” so contradicts our academic training that it can feel like a betrayal of private hopes and public responsibilities.
We are in effect learning to live like journalists. We are moving at speed from “story” to “story.” But anthropologists have an advantage: they are scrutinizing the world from an organizing, X-raying point of view. Systematic properties reveal themselves. And we are working not with events frothing on the surface of public life, but with more enduring materials (e.g., cultural categories). Finally, while we will work for many clients who ask a variety of questions, we return again and again to some of the same topics (e.g., American family and home). Most of the people with whom we compete in the research and consulting world practice amnesia. We gather as we go.
To say we resemble journalists and, to that extent, disappoint our missions as anthropologists, is indeed one way to look at it. We could also see our predicament as a trade off. Certain opportunities are denied us. But others are now possible.
Those who do business anthropology learn to work at speed. We can’t make a living unless we are prepared to capture data, work out understandings, conclusions and recommendations, and write these up, all more or less in real time. There’s no time for taping or transcription. There is precious little time to dwell. Lean in? We are pitched forward, obliged to watch topics constantly pulled away from us by the current. We can’t help feeling there are riches here if we only had time to examine them.
The advantage is that we learn to work fast. I wrote two books during the COVID period, thanks chiefly to my consulting training. One was called the The New Honor Code (Simon and Schuster 2021). The second is The Return of the Artisan (Simon and Schuster forthcoming 2022). (I wanted to call it The Return of the Native, but apparently that was taken. I kid.)
The first book is a piece of applied anthropology. As a grad student at the University of Chicago, with Marshall Sahlins (he of sainted memory) as my advisor, I studied Elizabethan England. This was interesting fieldwork for lots of reasons. It helped me see an honor code at work. And as I began to see bad behavior break out in American culture, I wondered “is there something in the Elizabeth case we could reengineer for use in the contemporary world.”
There is a presumption here that was new to me. Writing a book that aimed to change American culture? Surely, my job was to study culture, not reform it. But the more you study American culture, the more you see how responsive it is to individual initiative. (How else to understand Gloria Steinem, Tom Wolfe, Virgil Abloh, well, and for that matter, Margaret Mead?)
I wrote Honor in real time, piecing things together in my head as I went. This is “just in time” assembly I couldn’t imagine before consulting had transformed me. I am the graduate student who spend an entire weekend on a single paragraph, not because I was scrupulous, but because I was such a very bad writer.
Just in time assembly means you work with available materials. In my case that meant drawing on a career thinking about American culture on the grounds that “if honor is to be restored, it will have to find a place for itself in the present sea of cultural and moral innovations.” This gave me license to treat the American avant-garde, mid century modernism, the hippy revolution, the preppie rejoinder, the artisanal movement, celebrity culture, the rise of the millennial, the Gen Z rejoinder, and changing models of American selfhood, sociality and story telling.
You’d be surprised how useful these materials can be to a man who has to come up with 60,000 words in a very months. I was. And grateful. Surely we are done with authors who offer bold new reform with no thought to the American culture it must join if it has any hope of adoption. Otherwise we’re left with an ideational accumulation, a thing of threads and patches. Patches, mostly. We inhabit a culture that’s fast losing the integration Boasians, and some of the rest of us, held dear.
To write a book fast you need the right voice. And I think consulting gives us this too. We are writing for non anthropologists, non academics and people who are haunted by deadlines and targets. This means we learn to aim for clarity. For the Honor book, I decided to go for a kind of high-polish exposition relieved here and there by informality.
Here’s a passage. (It is part of my description of the Tilbury speech delivered by Elizabeth I on the eve of the attack by the Spanish armada in 1588. Honor played a key role, not in evidence here.) See what you think.
In the sixteenth-century scheme of things, England was little and vulnerable. The troops at Tilbury were hungry, underpaid, and properly terrified. By the Spanish standard, this island was poor, provincial, and home to hundreds of thousands of Catholic sympathizers who had been encouraged to rise up in support of the enemy.
Elizabeth’s Tilbury speech was theater in the service of statecraft, infinitely more compelling than the amateur production being staged in the channel by foppish aristocrats firing off conflicting instructions. (The commander of the armada, the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, had never fought at sea.) The Spanish called their armada invincible. Elizabeth had come to Tilbury to say, “No, actually, this is what invincible looks like. My courage will triumph over your titles and grandeur.” This is Elizabethan for “Bring it.”
There are a couple of rhetorical strategies the normal anthropologist would never use. The ‘word painting’ that stands in for patient review of data and argument. The total eclipse of scholarly reference. (Normally, available only to the Geertzian aristocrats among us). The sneering at foppish aristocrats. The daring, off-with-his-head, presumption of putting words in the mouth of a monarch who was the flower of Renaissance humanism and a master rhetorician. The last line is especially cringe worthy. But this was my effort to bring in the reader by being a little less, actually anti, oratorical.
I am behaving in a way that would horrify the academically scrupulous. The idea is to sacrifice rigor for approachability and agreeability. Consulting has helped me see that this is less a choice than an obligation. Yes, there is something a little shocking about the anthropologist who fails to “ping the tower” of scholarship as he goes. But the reader unfreighted by scholarship can make better speed and accomplish real distances. Does she survive these compromises without undue harm? I guess she has to make this decision for herself.
And this last point is a gift of consulting too: that I don’t presume to anticipate all of the needs or reactions of my reader. I look to be useful, interesting, illuminating and clear, and leave the rest to them. Yes, I am not scrupulous. We are, anthropologists are, these days sometimes perhaps preoccupied by scruple. This makes our work tough sledding for the general reader. They say, “Sorry, what? Oh never mind.”
The second book was called Return of the Artisan. It sprang from the Artisanal Economies Project (AEP) that Sam Ford and I founded a couple of years ago. Sam and I had met through Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT and at some point we started thinking about what we could do to help address the opioid abuse then (and still) raging in the US.
Our idea was to make artisanal activity a way to address lost industrial employment, a bulwark against the despair that sometimes follows unemployment, and the addiction that sometimes follows despair. Could we help induct people into the artisanal economy? We hoped that even a tentative engagement there might sustain self confidence and community connection. (Artisanal economies are very social and collaborative creatures.)
Sam and I did research across the US, much of it in the Midwest and South. We put together an elementary website at http://www.artisanaleconomiesproject.org, a kind of “lazy susan” of options. We hoped people would scroll through and find something of interest, start small, and scale up. The project failed to generate much interest and it didn’t draw the funding we needed to push the project further. (We had funded the research and the website out of our own pockets and those resources were now beginning to empty out.)
Now the issue was salvage. (Opportunism must sometimes be the business consultant’s middle name.) I had been working on the topic since 2006 and Sam suggested I think about combining that work with the AEP data, and create a book.
Before consulting, it never occurred to me to start an organization like AEP. My engagements with the world came in the form of books and articles. The university was my exoskeleton. If I was to have any kind of influence, it would be through my students and their students. Marshall Sahlins is an exemplar here. (I am one of his influences, a modest one to be sure.)
But what if what you need to engage the world more directly? Then you are in the “start up game,” as they call it in Silicon Valley. That’s a very different kettle of fish. And yet another learning curve. And, just to mix my metaphors thoroughly, a recipe for disappointment. Creating an organization is really to reckon with the crooked timber truth of humanity. Nothing is simple. Because (new metaphor alert!) humans really are cats and, as the phrase has it, impossible to herd.
But you can start a business. As a consulting anthropologist you have met and worked for lots of people who have created organizations. This removes most of the mystery and all of the awe. There’s lots of precedent and, if you ask for it, advice.
Starting an organization concentrates the mind. If you make a success of it, you may also get an “equity payday” when you get “bought out.” I have preferred to treat books as the big ROI that would see me into my retirement. I’m still waiting. Honor didn’t have a natural audience. Return might.
The artisanal story was really fun to tell. Again I’ve used a convivial prose. See what you think.
It’s a shocking thing to think. We’ve become habituated to the idea of office work. For years this had been the aspiration of almost everyone with a college degree. We got so very good at committee meetings, office speak, annual reviews, feel-good picnics, and morale building exercises, it’s a wonder we got any work done at all.
So a new model of work, this catches our attention. The artisan doesn’t have a suit to wear to work. She didn’t have an office or a parking space. She didn’t lie awake at night and worry about promotions. Her annual review is going to a local cafe with a friend and asking, “So how am I doing, do you figure? Be honest.”
The Artisan book shows some of the symptoms of hasty construction. In the place of a single grand model, I identify 24 properties. These stretch from “hand made” and “human scale” to “unbranded” and “storied.” These represent a shameless piling system. I stopped when I thought I might have covered everything. Here too integration got short shift.
Even in haste, there were wonderful things to notice. There was the strange duality of the artisanal economy. Especially, as we saw it operating in Kentucky, it was, my phrase, not theirs, “a grid below and a dome above.” People see themselves and their enterprises as emphatically free standing. They do not ask for support or succor. But they are constantly throwing off acts of generosity designed to serve the larger community. We interviewed a farmer who keeps an exotic species of sheep. He will never recover the costs of doing this, but he believes this matters to the community. In the “grid below,” advantage is calculated and pursued, steelyly, so to speak. Everything is counted. In the “dome above,” everyone gives and takes freely. No books are kept. No debts are registered. Nothing is owed.
This is direct and indirect exchange in a perfect laminate, discrete economies that operate almost without contact or mutual acknowledgement. When you ask why people give so generously to the community, the answer is various: God, church, community, caring. But usually the answer was “Kentucky.” I pursued this and was eventually told, “Kentucky is the only place that gives you a tattoo on the inside.”
Anthropologists have lots of natural advantages. It has tattooed many of us on the inside. This gives us a chance to carry our professional identity into our consulting life and, with the appropriate adaptations, serve our culture with an understanding of our culture they cannot get from any other social scientist, journalist, or helping professional. I don’t say that Durkheim, Boas, or Sapir would look at my career and register even a flicker of recognition. But as I was leaving the academic world, I thought, “What could it hurt to pitch one more anthropologist into the world?”
It’s a long shot but not a bad bet. And it cost the field nothing. This is one of the reasons I am sorry that the field has not supported consulting anthropologists more. Yes, of course, seen by unexamined assumptions, the consultant is the apostate. On the other hand, this experiment can advance the anthropology of American culture. And this culture needs all the friends it can get.
Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 14 books including The Return of the Artisan to be published by Simon and Schuster in July. He was the founder and Director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. Grant has taught at Harvard, University of Cambridge, and he was a member of the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT. He is a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project. He is the inventor of The Griff, an early warning system for social and cultural change. He consults widely, and his clients include Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Reddit, Sony, Boston Book Festival, NBC, IBM, Nike, and the Obama White House. For several publications: https://linktr.ee/grant27
Today, we got talking about Elizabeth I. Today is November 17 and that makes it the anniversary of Elizabeth’s accession to the throne of England in 1558.
I was noting how extraordinary Elizabeth was a political force. I even found myself speculating that had Elizabeth not been on the English throne for 45 years, Marissa and I might be having our conversation in Spanish.
I don’t know that this is true, but we can say this much. When Elizabeth took the throne, Spain was the indisputably the most powerful European nation. But the end of her reign in 1603, England was rising fast.
Marissa and I were talking about women and power. We were noting how tragic it was that, hundreds of years after Elizabeth, women continue to struggle to be fully acknowledged and deferred to as leaders.
The problem we agreed was sometimes that women are obliged by cultural convention to present themselves as generous and supportive. This inspires some employees (especially, but not only, men) to withhold their deference and loyalty to the boss. Subordinates don’t respect female bosses as much as they do male ones. (By and large, on the whole.)
What would Elizabeth have thought about this? I hesitate to presume to speak for so brilliant and accomplished a woman. But I do have the advantage of having studied Elizabethan culture for several years. (My PhD thesis at the University of Chicago was about how Elizabethans treated public life as a theatrical performance.)
Elizabethans were keenly interested in what we might call the stylistics of power, how people used non verbal behavior, facial expression, tone of voice, and the gestures of the body for political effect.
Elizabeth was especially interested in these matters. After all, she was a woman and in 1558 a young woman. Many people were prepared to doubt and even challenge her claim to power. She was obliged to use every medium and device at her disposal. (Including, of course, clothing. See the magnificent outfit she wears in the Armada portrait image above. Who could doubt this claim to majesty and empire? Well, lots of people could and did. Hence her careful attention to the languages of power.)
Shadows of doubt
Here’s what I think Elizabeth might say to women in the present day.
briefly and occasionally, signal that you are not the subordinate’s friend.
briefly and occasionally, signal that your support is conditional.
briefly and occasionally, signal that you will punish those who disappoint you.
briefly and occasionally, signal a reminder that the employee needs the employer, not the other way round.
The objective of political posture is what we might call a shadow of doubt.
We want to create in the subordinate a small tremor of uncertainty. What if his or her relationship with the superordinate is not secure? What if the boss is prepared to withdraw her good opinion and support?
Let’s be clear: this is not a permanent shift in attitude and tone. Female leaders will want to continue most of the time to be supportive and generous. All we want to do is to drop a new signal into the flow of signals between boss and superordinate. Just enough to make the subordinate to go “hmm.”
Ok, now to specifics. Here’s what Elizabeth might advise:
in the course of a conversation, narrow your eyes. (Every so often, and almost without regard to the topic at hand).
let a pause in the conversation go on a beat longer than it normally would.
let another pause go on so long that the subordinate wonders, “whoops, what did I say.”
lower the emotional tone of an interaction by suddenly smiling less. Women are encouraged by our culture to offer a constant encouragement to their conversational partner. Stop doing this occasionally. Just look at the person you are talking to.
look at your subject, er, your employee, less often. The subject should be looking at you all the time. You at them only some of the time.
you are in charge of business…and the conversation. You set the topics. When you are talking, subordinates should not be talking. And when you start talking, the subordinate should stop talking. Immediately.
cut down down on the ritual greetings that happen when we greet and leave one another. Yes, you are glad to see the subordinate and sorry to see them go. But not that glad or sorry. We don’t want anything as curt as “ok, we’re done here” but you, the boss, is entitled to end the conversation a little precipitously. “Anything else? Thanks for dropping by.” You don’t owe them anything more.
Again, these are intermittent activities. Use them sparingly. Use them all the time and you compromise the other half of your management style: that generosity and supportiveness. Your “resting style” as a boss should be open eyes, brisk and continuous conversation, the usual warmth of interaction.
It’s men who often seek more obvious control or intimidation. The Elizabethan approach to power, at least as we are interpreting it here, is more subtle, more “nuanced” (Marissa’s word, as I recall).
What does success look like? The subordinate should now be carrying on an new internal conversation. “Are we good?” “Is something wrong?” “Should I be working harder?” “Do I need to lean in a little more?” And the phrase that should no be banished forever from consciousness: “She will let me get away with that. I mean, she’s so nice.”
Some will recoil at this on the grounds that the advice is manipulative. Of course it’s manipulative. If the alternative is employees who think that they can take advantage of the boss, well, a little manipulation is clearly called for. And probably too good for them. Elizabeth had many still more formidable ways of manipulating the relationship. But you, the female executive, probably don’t have access to a rack, the tower, or banishment from court. (Perhaps that should change.)
Ok, that’s advice from a monarch. And if you would do me this small courtesy. Tonight if you happen to holding a glass of wine, please raise it in celebration. If you are willing or alone, please say, “Long may she reign over us.” The English celebrated November 17th well past Elizabeth’s passing. They lit bonfires and set off fire works. (Yes, if you have fire works, that would be a nice touch.)
But the better way to celebrate Elizabeth is this: every time you are dealing with one of your “unruly subjects,” you now know what to do. In the course of conversation, simply stop talking, let your face become a little pensive or even a little blank, and look away from a moment. Then come back to the conversation. You have evoked a shadow of doubt and this should have summoned a ruly subject, someone who no longer dares take your generosity for granted.
[I should say the actual details of my nonverbal advice here are mostly surmise. I have read the Elizabethan “courtesy literature” and its description of nonverbal strategies. But as far as I know, Elizabeth didn’t ever record her strategies and I am only guessing what her actual advice would be.]
My recently published book, The New Honor Code, offered a glimpse of Elizabeth.
It’s part of my description of the Tilbury speech Elizabeth delivered on the eve of the attack by the Spanish armada in 1588.
In the sixteenth-century scheme of things, England was little and vulnerable. The troops at Tilbury were hungry, underpaid, and properly terrified. By the Spanish standard, this island was poor, provincial, and home to hundreds of thousands of Catholic sympathizers who had been encouraged to rise up in support of the enemy.
Elizabeth’s Tilbury speech was theater in the service of statecraft, infinitely more compelling than the amateur production being staged in the channel by foppish aristocrats firing off conflicting instructions. (The commander of the armada, the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, had never fought at sea.) The Spanish called their armada invincible. Elizabeth had come to Tilbury to say, “No, actually, this is what invincible looks like. My courage will triumph over your titles and grandeur.” This is Elizabethan for “Bring it.”
I felt like I was being chased up the beach by a tidal wave.
Run for your life, anthropologist, run for your life!
I was looking at a new ad for Lexis. Here it is.
So much going on.
See especially the opening chords which are, unless I’m mistaken, played on the gear box of a Lexus.
Then there’s this.
This really got me. The choreography of Zak Ryan Schleger on a parking garage roof top. Astonishing. Dance let loose in the world.
This is the Creative Sparks / No Ceiling campaign for Lexus. It represents a collaboration by songwriting duo Nova Wave, Korean-American R&B artist Audrey Nuna, Argentinian freestyle rapper Ecko, dancer and choreographer Zak Ryan Schlegel, director Sebastian Strasser, Mark Miller at Team One, amongst others, and Vinay Shahani at Lexus, amongst others.
It feels like something important has been accomplished here. (Sure they scared an anthropologist. But I don’t believe any other social scientists were frightened in the making of this campaign.)
Brands have been looking for this North West passage forever. In and of themselves they are the poor cousins, sometimes the idiot cousins, of contemporary culture. Shill machines that never really brought anything to the party. Indeed if you bought the Naomi Klein argument, brands were constantly extracting value and meaning from our culture.
But brands kept trying. And why would they not? They could see that all the action in our culture came from the worlds of music, video, subcultures, movies, memes, street fashion, cultural movements, blogs, fanfic, curation, YouTube, Instagram, etc. All the best meanings were being made by someone else. Brands wanted in. What if they could dress themselves in these meanings? Mon dieu. All the riches of Asia awaited them.
Sometimes it would work. More often it was painful. The brand would hire a band (or other creative) and rent a stage. The brand would stand stage-right with a hopeful expression that said something like “do you love me now?” No, the consumer did not love you now. They looked right past the brand to the band. There was no meaning transfer. The brand remained clueless and utterly out of it. And not just because the brander was usually wearing Khaki trousers and a branded golf shirt.
The very worse species of brands seeking culture is the celebrity perfume ad. How awful. Johnny Depp for Sauvage. Charlize Theron for Dior. Wonderful actors both. But as pitch people? Oi. And so bad for the celebrity. Routinely and without a shadow of a doubt, a perfume ad takes some of your credibility and creative accomplishment into the studio parking lot and sets it on fire. I expect that the actor thinks “wow, a vast sum of money and all I have to do is swan about with majestic music and sets in the background. What could possibly go wrong?” Here’s what goes wrong: you look like a self-absorbed ninny, the very creature we are beginning to suspect most celebrities are (and during COVID were), monsters of self consuming narcissism who have ceased to believe in the existence of people other than themselves.
But otherwise, good work was stirring. I love the determination and accomplishments of Jack Conte. There were celebrities prepared to act of design consultants to the brand. Will.I.am has done some interesting things. Years ago BMW hired directors to make short films. More recently Intel and Vice reached out to artists.
This work was brave and interesting. But nothing quite made it all the way to Asia. The Northwest passage remained a mystery.
No Ceiling is a miracle. It’s gives us diverse materials brought together but kept apart.
There are media, music, several kinds of music, music video, dance, movements, gestures, post its, traffic jams, parking garages, dance studios, recording studios, texts, artists trying stuff, symphonies, basketball courts, apparitions on roof tops, and yes that gear box, and a flat note (can you find it?), as artists converge on this magical exercise of meaning making for the brand.
And the Lexus is there, present, welcome, seen! There are one too many product features featured for my taste. But otherwise, the Lexus performs brilliantly as a car and the brand. It’s not all golf shirted and Khaki clad attempting to crash the culture. No, here it’s credible and interesting and alive to the game around it. The brand profits! It soaks up this creative fever til it begins to give it off. Indeed this campaign could be the brand’s fever dream. What a Lexus dreams of when asleep in that parking garage.
Who doesn’t want a car like that?
I showed the ad to my wife. She said, “wonderful but not for me.”
I said, “I want one. And I don’t drive. And I don’t care about cars.”
What’s the secret of this miracle?
Some of it comes from not flattening the composites. The song, the singing, the dance, the city, the rooftops, all these must be brought in undiminished.
We could think of this in terms of Henry Jenkins’ idea of transmedia. In this case, a single story is let out into the world to play out in lots of media, comic book origins, movies, fanfic, etc. All of this, Jenkins says, is one story and at a stroke he gave us a grouping that was rich and diverse even as the composites all somehow remain within shouting distance of one another, a thing, a we.
David Weinberger gave us the notion of “small pieces loosely joined.” Here too we were treated to a category that did not police its contents, a category that bloomed with an internal diversity, a category that teetered on the edge of the extra-categorical.
This is one of the secrets of the Northwest passage: how to bring things in while honoring their difference. How to bring diverse materials together even as we keep them apart.
No assembly required
How can this happen in a popular culture, for whom “keep it simple, stupid” (aka “keep it stupid, simple”) was the mantra. The lesson from contemporary culture, this too courtesy of Henry Jenkins, is that we can combine diverse meanings and media because the media literacy of the audience is so high. Somehow popular culture turned into culture and in the process we all get smarter.
There are a ton of questions begging for an answer. How do people combine things? Do they choose to work with the materials in the Lexus ad? How do these meanings enter and ricochet around in the brand? How do we engineer meanings, ads and brands that can rise to this occasion?
Oh, and one more thing. Formally speaking, the problem of the brand is very like the problem now faced by the whole of contemporary culture. What we know and what we learn could be applied to an American culture that’s on the verge of social structural collapse. Once a robust category, it’s now an ungodly mess.
Variety tells us that the new show called Only Murders is a comedy. And it could be.
But there’s a dangerous alchemy attempted here. Bringing together distant generations is hard to do. It almost always descends into an effort to find the funny in mutual incomprehension.
And nothing is sadder.
Different generations are different cultures. Strict rules govern the comedic possibilities. It’s ok if Selena doesn’t get Steven and Martin. Cool rules. Youth doesn’t understand age as a matter of principle…and pride.
But it’s not ok if Martin and Steve don’t understand Selena. This occasions embarrassment and drives every bit of funny out of the room.
On the other hand, maybe not.
Martin Short is a genius. Steve Martin is very funny. And show runner Dan Fogelman is gifted.
But here’s a solution. It comes straight out of the ethnographic data. Call it a gift from anthropology to Hollywood.
My interviews with Millennials tell me two things:
that Millennials are often “playing” boomers, creating the impression that they like and admire them. Boomers are so clueless they don’t know they are being played. And if you can’t turn this into funny, well. Make this a running joke and you have a comedic device that will return riches.
that Millennials sometimes conduct a private, coded communication with other Millennials as a way to comment on one another and Millennials. I studied an office in London where everyone sat around a table. Above table, they carried on an amiable conversation. Below table, chiefly in some social medium, Slack or Discord or something, they kept up a withering commentary.
So it’s simple, really. Let Steve and Martin not “get it” all they want, but allow Millennials this method of managing them.
Curatorial ability. You have it. And up until til now, you just gave it away.
We are all culture curators one way or another. We are passionate about graphic novels, hip hop, noir films, craft beer, computer games, folk arts, or this thing called American culture or those people called the French. Something.
As curators, we have deep knowledge.
Go ahead. Ask us about Game of Thrones. And make yourself comfortable. Because we will talk for hours: the story lines, actors, producers, backstories, and why X did Y to Z. (That bastard!)
Our curator knowledge is vast and diverse. It stretches in all directions. We know something about a lot of things, and a ton about several things in particular. We are curators broad and curators deep.
Our curatorial knowledge is so vast, we don’t see it as knowledge. We don’t see it as valuable. We don’t think of it as an accomplishment.
Maybe this is the reason we just give it away.
Our curatorial competence ends up being a gift economy in the worst sense of the term: one party gives and the other party takes.
We supply our curatorial knowledge to someone in the world. And that’s that. No money changes hands. No recognition is forthcoming. The curator gives. The corporation just helps itself.
Recently we saw the creatoreconomy suddenly lift off. Suddenly there is money to be had for those who make culture in the form of videos, game play, TikTok performances, Instragram images, podcasts and even blog posts. (No, not this one.)
As you may know, we are on the verge of a new Culture Camp. Details here: www.culture.camp!
This morning we got a query from a guy in the travel industry, who wanted to know why the camp could be useful for someone in his industry.
I thought you might be interested in my reply!
Great to hear your voice.
Here are a couple of thoughts on culture and travel that will help indicate some of the things we will be thinking about in Culture Camp.
A knowledge of culture helps identify who the consumer is and what they want to be.
Here is what the travel industry looks like through the culture prism.
One of the trends we are watching (and I am sure you are seeing it too) is women traveling alone.
This is driven, we believe, by lots of things but especially perhaps by the success of Eat, Pray, Love as well as Under the Tuscan Sun.
We are looking at the possibility that this will get another push if and when we see the rise of a female Anthony Bourdaine. We are looking for this.
Or for that matter, a woman doing a version of the Stanley Tucci doc that’s just come out, Searching for Italy, I think it’s called.
Another development in culture is the way boomers are redefining their 70s and 80s. The model here used to be a decline into passivity and a cruise ship. As they search for something more active and transformational, new models are called for (and probably emerging). Would love to hear your thoughts here too.
In general, the trend is away from owning things to gathering experiences and it feels like travel is a perfect arena for this undertaking.
DNA and the genealogical work is helping people see that they have connections to countries that used to be just colors on a map. Looking for the home of your ancestry (see the very interesting work of Henry Louis Gates here) supplies another motive.
Airbnb used to sell itself (and it may still) as a chance to be embedded in a place, as opposed merely a tourist there. So we are looking for new ways to be a tourist … and escape the old tourism model.
“You can find awesome rhythm in everything. People will hear certain breaks that I make and be like, ‘Where’d that come from?’ I’ll be like, ‘That was the part where dude was running down the steps in “Annie Get Your Gun.”‘” [Quelle Chris, producer, quoted in jason hirschhorn’s @MusicREDEF, Aug. 26, 2020]
Quelle Chris was just minding his own business, watching a musical 40 years older than himself, washed over by all that motion and music.
One detail sticks: the sound of a dude running down the steps. Can’t have been more than a couple of seconds, a tiny fraction of Annie Get Your Gun. But it sticks.
It sticks and then it returns!
Years later, Quelle Chris is solving a problem and something deep inside the vaults of memory breaks free and climbs right up to and into the conscious mind.
And starts shouting, “Me! That rhythm you’re looking for. It’s me!”
At a minimum, creativity is two things: pattern capture and pattern delivery.
The capture is mysterious. Why that detail from a musical and not one of the thousands of other details? Something in it speaks to something in us. And the unconscious mind says, “I’ll have that” and spears it out of the stream of consciousness.
Pattern delivery feels still more mysterious. How do things find their way back up stream, none the worse for spearing, back into consciousness years later?
For some reason, I think of the unconscious mind as operating like that ancient guy in a still more ancient hardware store. “Hank” (see greasy badge on chest) stands behind a bank filled with every kind of, well, hardware. And when you come in and say, “Do you know what this is?” Hank says, “Sure I’ve got one of those. Gimme a sec.” and begins to scrutinize his many tiny boxes of battered cardboard.
Of course Hank has it.
“Here you go.” he says, “That will be 47 cents.” (Why does everything in the old hardware stores cost too little?)
It’s as if everything sits in memory spring loaded, ready to undertake an instant passage from “concealed in memory” to “irresistibly present.” Like, dude, how? Like, right?
Ours is an age obsessed with creativity and innovation. Before COVID we staged a million brainstorms. The air turned yellow with post-its. Everyone was invited. We tried to make the mysteries of Quelle Chris and Hank happen at will.
And we did a pretty good job of it. We made the brainstorm deliver magical things. But all that’s gone, struck down by the fever. (And if you think brainstorms are being delivered by Zoom, for god sake, tell me about it.)
The COVID era forces us back on our own resources. It’s up to us to “Quelle and Hank” it on our own. Are we working on this? Are we?
Maybe this marks a return to an earlier internet. Remember those early days? That pre-COVID fever. All of us offering up thoughts that might “stick” for someone else, eventually “returning” to aid them solve a problem.
The question (and I do have one) is how is our “Quelle and Hank” efforts going? Lot’s of activity? Lots of productivity? Or were we so domesticated by the group mind and corporate brainstorm that we are now estranged from Quelle and Hank. Let me know.
to Matty Karas at jason hirschhorn’s always provocative @musicredef.
to Pip Coburn for a glimpse at the way he thinks about the creative process.
to Sara Winge and Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty for the Web 2.0 idea that helped us make that transition from a passive web to an active one. It does feel like passivity has returned, that the old days of the old fever need a reboot.
Recently the marketing team at Twitter put culture at the heart of what they do, in that most precious territory, the value proposition.
This is great, I thought. A company as connected and powerful as Twitter using culture to describe what it does, that has to be good for us all.
Because, let’s face it, we have all struggled to put the culture idea on the agenda. People give it lip service, but when it comes to hiring people to supply cultural intelligence, not so much.
I see a lot of really big talents languishing for want of a more sophisticated approach. Culture is always and everywhere in the work of the creative, strategic, design, digital, innovation, social, marketing, content creator and curator. But it is almost never acknowledged as such. AND THAT MEANS THE PERSON WHO IS HELPING THE ORGANIZATION CONNECT TO CULTURE IS NOT GETTING THEIR DUE.
After work, everyone, including senior managers, goes to the bar and talks about culture. They talk about what they are watching on Netflix, and this is entirely cultural because a Netflix show cannot matter unless it resonates with something in us and that cannot happen unless the show resonates with something in our culture. But back on the job, the senior managers forget this. It’s back to business as usual. It’s back to business without culture.
Why isn’t culture identified in the value proposition of the corporation? It comes down to four problems. (Well, four will do for starters.)
1. OK boomer
Partly this is a generational problem.
This spring I wrote an essay on Culture and Design. (Let me know if you want a copy.) I had been reading Design Thinking statements, and none of them mentioned culture.
I opened my essay by noting this was like listening to an economist talking about economics without talking about value or a physicist talking about physics without talking about energy.
I sent this essay to someone in the Design Thinking field. Here’s how he characterized what he thought I was saying.
“I am the culture guy. I believe culture is super important. So I am going to write 22 more pages on why the culture guy thinks culture is more important than non-culture people do.”
For this person, my essay was a form of special pleading. Because for him, culture is a minority interest. And, no, you don’t need to know about culture to talk about design.
This person has been taken captive by all the old generational stereotypes. For him, culture is additional, superficial in both the conventional and the literal sense of the term. It’s a thing of surfaces, something we slap on, something we can therefore strip away. And that is the job of smart, tough minded people. They take pride in removing anything that doesn’t speak to the practical, the utilitarian, and the consumer’s pursuit of economic self interest narrowly defined.
This is what boomers think of culture. It’s the way they exclude it from business. Thus do they short-change their professional responsibilities. Much worse, thus do they force their organization to compromise its navigational instruments and understandings.
2. A branding problem to be sure
The culture idea has many variations on the theme. Time to rethink and relaunch. Some people insist that culture means “corporate culture” (and it does but not only). Some think it means “high culture” (and it does but not only). Some think it means “popular culture” (and it does…) The culture we care about sits above all of these. It’s like language in several ways but particularly this: it operates silently and invisibly to supply a grid that divides the world into categories. As William Gibson says, “We can’t see our culture very well because we see with it.” We could think of culture as the software we install in that hardware called the brain to make the world make sense. This is what we mean when we talk about the culture of Ethiopia, France, or Scotland. It supplies meanings without which life in Ethiopia, France or Scotland is largely mystifying.
Culture means the rules and meanings with which people grasp the world around them. Imagine an hour in Manhattan if you were from, say, the Mongolian steppes. You would be in a state of astonishment. And this is not because Manhattan can be percussive and even concussive, but because you don’t have the cultural template in your head that lets you grasp what you are looking at.
But culture is also the rules and meanings with which people craft the world around them. Some people are very good at meme making. Others not so much. The difference depends upon whether you have managed to divine the grammar of this emergent form, figuring out how to use it, and put it to work. American culture is restless and innovative. It was only a few years ago that there was no such thing as a meme. Then, for a moment it was a wild experiment. Now it’s a standard creative voice. Ours is a culture under constant reconstruction.
3. Frankfurt School
We understand why the Frankfurt school was so deeply suspicious of culture, but their thinking helped create several generations of academics who could not see American culture except as an act of manipulation and false consciousness. And this created generations of students who loved culture, who lived culture, but struggled to find a way to take it seriously.
Now they take it seriously. Now they decode our culture with an eye for subtlety and nuance. Now they invent culture in the form of memes, fandom, blogging, pop ups, videos, remixes, and all that editorial comment on Twitter. But thanks to the Frankfurt school, these people don’t always have a formal idea of what they are doing. A meme has nothing to do with a blog post which has nothing to do with a video. The world is a collection of discrete events. For want of an idea of culture they cannot see the bigger picture or the deeper one.
4. Sloppy thinking
Take the notion of the gift economy. We all know to genuflect when this term comes up. We get a little teary eyed at the thought of people giving of their creativity freely. But let’s be clear about this. There are millions of kids writing many more millions of lines of culture. They are (almost) never compensated. As a result these authors will have to work at McDonald’s again this summer. Even a small amount of value would free them to refine their craft, in the process building their art and our culture. On reflection, it occurred to me that the only people who really profit from the gift economy have tenure and big fat professorial salaries. (See my bad tempered essay, (sorry, Clay,) called The Gift Economy: a reply to Clay Shirky).
The point: until we build an economy that rewards and funds culture creators, we are starving our culture and excluding a generation (or two). A 14 year old fan fiction writer doesn’t need to make much money, just enough to free her from the french fry line. I can’t believe that some brand hasn’t taken the leadership position here. Oh, wait, perhaps Twitter just did. Spotify recently made steps in that direction. And Patreon is of course one variation on direct fan support.
Given what we know, making a culture for culture shouldn’t be that hard. We understand the sociology and anthropology of how communities form. We know how to build networks. We know how to wire a world with Twitter and Instagram. Right?
The trouble is we are not pack animals. We’re quick to wear the culture badge on our sleeve, but not to join the lodge or pay the dues. This could change.
For starters, we want a bulletin board in which people talk about the problems they are working on.
I’ll start. Here are the problems I’m trying to solve.
▪️ Reading the future
I am working on a “big blue board.” (Yes, it’s a stupid name. But if you saw the Board you would understand.) This attempts to combine big data and thick data to create an early warning system to see the future coming. At the moment, I am tracking the crisis in retail, the effects of the gig economy, the change in the status of pets in America, the way we are rethinking status and privilege, the decline of ownership, something called “rewilding,” and 200 other trends. The problem here: as the world becomes faster, more chaotic, more disruptive, everyone is trying to figure out how to see what’s coming. (Rita McGrath at Columbia just published a book called Seeing Around Corners.) Can people who get culture make a contribution and if so what?
One of the big challenges: getting the data. In turns out, people would rather reveal the intimate details of their sex lives and financial standing than share corporate data. I don’t know how we solve this problem. But we have to.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the investors were unable to get their mitts on good data easily. And along came Michael Bloomberg and his terminals. Somewhere out there in our culture culture there is someone who will do for cultural data what Bloomberg did for financial data, and make themselves fabulously wealthy into the bargain.
▪️ Working on our novel
I’m finishing up a novel called Anna about a couple of guys who go to LA, install massive computing power in an old warehouse in Chinatown, and begin the hunt for the secrets of Hollywood. They are discovered by a Hollywood celebrity who understands that popular culture is capricious and that she must change to survive. The point of the exercise was to find a lively way to tell the story of culture. Did it work? Kinda sorta. I had to teach myself how to write fiction. Not sure how well I did.
The point of this there are lots of media in which to conduct our study of culture.
▪️ Working on theory and concept
One of the problems with culture is that it is so very amorphous. One of our first requirements then is a nice, clear, compact definition of what culture is.
My current definition says culture is meanings and rules. The trouble with most marketing, branding, design, strategy, and innovation is that it uses culture without ever treating it as culture, and it works with a small piece of culture without any sense of the larger architecture of meaning from which this comes. This is fine for clients. But those of us who work with culture need, I think, to construct a great vaulted ceiling that shows all the meanings of American culture and a sense of where they been and where they are going (hence the Big Blue Board). We need the entire “periodic table,” so to speak. (Apologies for the welter of metaphors. Anyone suffering whip lash or nose bleeds is asked to report to the Medium nursing station immediately.)
Here’s a good example of rules. Many young women (some men, and a lot of Canadian men interestingly) used to end a sentence with an interrogative upswing. This is sometimes called “uptalk.” We have seen some women undertake a new strategy. Now they end a sentence with a “vocal fry.” This replaces the upturn with a downturn. (Kim Kardashian may or may not be the innovator here. In any case she served as a super agent in its diffusion.)
This cultural rule says “end a sentence with a question mark even when it is an assertion.” And that rule is now being challenged by a new rule that says, “end a sentence with a down turn.” This rule springs, in part, from the gender meanings with which we define femaleness. This is American culture in action. It is almost certainly feminism in action. (The upturn communicates uncertainty. The downturn says, take it or leave it.) The actors rarely see that they are obeying rules. Because culture conceals itself. But these rules are nevertheless active and formative. We use a great many rules in the “presentation of self in everyday life” as Goffman called it. These days it feels like the famous Goffman formula could also be written the “construction of self in everyday life.” We are all works in progress. We change (as/and the rules do).
Clients don’t need to see the vaulted ceiling that shows the meanings of American culture. They don’t need to see the rule book that contains the instructions for “being American.” But our work gets better when we do. When we advise clients too often we do not give them detailed rationales for our recommendations. Worst case, creatives “just know” they are “on to something.” Eesh! In an age in which things change so fast, the cost of error is so high, and CMO tenures are so fleeting, we have to do better. We have to be able to say there is a system, a discipline, and a profession.
This will have a sorting effect. Clients will be able to choose their consultants more intelligently. And that means consultants will begin to get the clients they deserve.
I am always having a discussion with myself when I should be having that discussion with the culture community (aka the culture culture). Recently I have been asking whether it is enough to call culture merely “meanings” and “rules.” Maybe , I thought, I want to add “conventions” to my definition.
Here’s how that went. I was working for Netflix on how TV was changed. I needed a good way to talk about this change. Raiding the field of political science, I decided to posit a contract between viewers and showrunners. The old contract said things like “on TV, bad things can’t happen to good people.” Once we identified with a character, no harm could come to them. Now of course bad things routinely happened to good people. (I wrote this up for a Boston conference. You can find it on Slideshare here.) The argument to make here is that the revolution on TV can be seen as a rewriting of the contract between showrunner and viewer and this can be seen as a change in our cultural conventions.
Ok, now I have a problem. In the heat of the moment, I used “convention” to explain the data. But it’s neither meaning nor rule. So have I changed the model…or not? This is culture theory as an open question. I think we should all have models. And one of the points of culture culture is precisely to compare and contrast these models. There is a ton of work here. Let a 1000 models bloom.
▪️ Moving and making meanings
Culture does not confine itself to the conventional expression of conventional meanings. We are constantly inventing new meanings (e.g., new ideas of femaleness) and giving them new expressions (e.g., vocal fry).
In fact, our culture continues to rethink the way it works with meanings. We can posit 4 approaches.
In the first, we use marketing, advertising, design, innovation, social media, and PR as informed by research, planning and strategy, to put meanings (old and new) into brands and services. This is a simple process of transfer. The ad transfers meanings from culture to brand. It is almost exactly like metaphor. “Look, X is very like Y” invites us to take what we know about X and use it to think about Y. “He ran like a gazelle.” “The world began with a big bang.”
Thus in the early 1960s a print ad in Life would show the new Lincoln sitting at the verge of a fox hunt in Connecticut. “Look,” said the ad, “this car has the same meanings at the fox hunt. Surely you can see that.” Hilarious, yes, but it spoke to the status aspirations of a rising middle class. This is what marketing in general and advertising in particular spent most of the 20th century doing. (Except of course when the ad was merely an informational exercise. And in this event, no one, not the agency, the client or the consumer, could conceal their disinterest.)
Stage 2, starting some time in the 1990s, grew tired and resentful of this kind of meaning making and said, “Oh, please, this is just so dumb. Surely we can manage something more interesting.” The “alternative” 90s preferred a meaning-making strategy that combined unlikely meanings, meanings that did not “go” together. This would put Tarantino, Beck, Jay-Z, and Frank Black and the Pixies in the same category. The effects were arresting. We were looking at the systematic violation of the “combinatorial” conventions in our culture. The effect was “fresh.” We liked “fresh.” Increasingly, “fresh” came from combinatorial violation.
Stage 3 is an exaggeration of Stage 2. In this stage (still active) some of the best culture came out of a deliberate collision of genres. Because genres were dying. They were simply too predictable for our new interpretive gifts. So we put things into the particle accelerator and ran them together. The effects were explosive. “Cyclotron culture” was fascinating. See Jon Caramanica’s account of the album by 100 gecs. “This duo’s debut album, 1000 gecs, smashes electro-pop, dance music, punk and dozens of other rapid-fire reference points into something genuinely new and exhilarating.”
Stage 4 sees the advent of a new kind of meaning making. This is subtle and cunning. Less about colliding culture and more about braiding and splicing it. This is about acts of ingenuity that the culture creator cannot perform unless she is fully the master of culture and that the rest of us can only “get” because we are so much better at culture. Not everyone is. Nas X was asked why he thought Billboard had removed “Old Town Road” from the country chart. He suggested “the song’s ingenuity might have intimidated them.” When this kind of meaning making works, it provokes the smile people wear when confronted by something really clever. You know the one. I wrote a book about Stage 4 meaning making called Chief Culture Officer.
Until we are prepared to put the idea of culture at the center of all these creative undertakings (advertising, social, PR, branding, design, planning, innovation, experience, activation, marketing), it is hard to see that there is one world here. It’s harder still for creatives to see what they have in common. Culture gives us the opportunity to embrace the whole of marketing and creativity in a single point of view.
There are several interesting puzzles here. I think the very gifted Mark Earls is wrong to say that all culture is the repetition of culture. I think there is a cultural grammar that is genuinely generative. But this too is an open question. What are the specific techniques with which people make movies, ads and memes? How is culture drawn upon and given to, that’s the question. (Mark has a new book out called Creative Superpowers.)
I think people are wrong to say that the only meaning that matters now for brands are the ones marked “social purpose” or “social advocacy.” These matter to be sure. But they are not the only meanings that can make a brand vibrate. Quite apart from the problem of cause fatigue, as Tanya Dua calls it, there are almost an endless provinces of meaning out there. And the good marketer is Marco Polo.
Peter Spear and I have been trying to have this conversation since December. (See his excellent blog That Business of Meaning.) I thank him for the provocation.
▪️ Working on method
We are pretty good, most of us, at using ethnography or something like it. Time to add new methods.
More and more, I am using big data and AI. There is too much waterfront in our diverse, changeable culture for us to depend on qualitative data alone. Or put it this way, only quantitative data can tell us where we should be collecting out qualitative data.
We also need to think more about how to present our work to the client. One method is “scenario planning” which I first got to see in action at Herman Miller. It’s a useful way to present alternative futures. But more important it helps engage clients in the problem solving. See the recent book by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon called Moments of Impact and The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz.
Again, we are not pack animals.
But surely, we can build an institutional lattice work!
In a perfect world, we would have a university home. While Syd Levy, John Kelly and Rob Kozinets were still there, this was the Kellogg business school at Northwestern. Ditto the magnificent group Henry Jenkins built at MIT. (He has since moved to USC.)
I am always impressed by how many people with a gift for culture have a connection to Brown University. (Take a bow, Ken Anderson, Kate Hammer and Brad Grossman. See Brad’s Zeitguide here.) Who is responsible for Brown’s contribution to the cause? Suggestions please.
Londoners are unusually brainy when it comes to matters cultural. I couldn’t possibly name everyone who has impressed me there but I’m going to try: Russell Davies, Amelia Torode, Henry Mason, Andy Dexter, Leanne Tomasevic, Richard Wise, John Curran, Lee Sankey, Tracey Follows, John Willshire, Petar Vujosevic, Nick Morris, Johnny Vulcan, Nick Sherrard, Adam Chmielowski, Beeker Northam, Stuart Smith, Jon Howard, Martina Olbertova, Frederica Carlotta and Ben Malbon.
But what was I saying about institutional homes for the study of culture? Ken Anderson is at Princeton at the Keller School. Caley Cantrell is at VCU Brand Center. Rob Kozinets is at USC. I wonder if Michael Diamond could be persuaded to build something into the School of Professional Studies at NYU. Maybe Rob Fields could build it into his Weeksville Heritage Center. Or perhaps now that Amran Amed has colonized the world of fashion (see his revolutionary Business of Fashion) perhaps he would love to climb the vertical and assume control of the cultural high ground.
But of course we don’t need an academic locus. In a post bricks-and-mortar age, we have world-building technologies of our own.
But someone will need to stand up and nominate themselves as the still center of the storm. This person would need the networking gifts of a Napier Collyns. He or she will need the strategic genius of a Sam Ford (now preoccupied by his new assignment at Simon and Schuster.) I had a great conversation last year with Sam Hornsby at Havas. He would be great at this. Sparks and Honey is deeply capable when it comes to the culture idea. Perhaps CEO Terry Young would consider taking on a broader mandate. Robert Morais and Timothy Malefyt have created a home for Business Anthropology. Maybe they would be prepared to cast the net to include those who are interested in culture but are not anthropologists. Or maybe it could be Samantha Ladner, Patti Sunderland, Phil Surles, Eric Nehrlich, Sophie Wade, Ed Cotton, Collyn Ahart, Dan Gould, Faris Yakob, Martin Carriere, Clay Parker Jones, Garth Kay, Melissa Fisher, Rick Liebling or Gillian Tett. I wonder if we could persuade a brand or an agency to create a fellowship so that someone could spend a year setting up a “Culture College.”
Most of all, we need to establish a place in the minds of the clients who fund our work (those of us who live outside the academy). This has to be a shared task: books, conferences. The only thing we don’t want to share is the clients themselves. That would be wrong.
A change inside the corporation?
A change has to be made in the American corporation. This is what makes the revelation from Twitter marketing so exciting. Finally someone is prepared to lead with the culture idea. And if it’s good enough for Twitter, surely it’s good enough for Delta and American, NFL and MLB, Hertz and Avis, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Ford and Chrysler, CBS and NBC, Netflix and Hulu, Microsoft and Apple, and all the brands struggling for oxygen.
Surely, there is a change in the works. I read with interest a story in Variety called Change or Die: 50% of Media and Entertainment Execs Say They Can’t Rely on Old Biz Models, Survey Finds.Yes, get rid of the Old Biz Models. Please.
And there was a great article on the HBS website called “NFL Head Coaches Are Getting Younger. What Can Organizations Learn?” It draws on a piece in the Washington Post by Adam Kilgore which includes this passage.
“For years the league has been a place where coaches hopped in lateral cycles and the upward flow of creative offensive schemes stopped at the college level, with most teams running similar, risk-averse offenses, and innovation taking root slowly.”
The HBS piece concludes,
“This conservative approach to hiring seems to have changed in recent years. As early risk-takers have been rewarded with high-profile success, others have become more willing to take chances themselves.”
Perfect, I thought. Perhaps we can hope for a changing of the guard at the American organization.
The younger you are, the more you treat culture as an obvious good, a useful instrument, and the very heart of your personal interests and identity construction. There are a couple of generations waiting to take their place in the corporation, to be valued by the corporation, to be paid by the corporation, to be advanced by the corporation to the C Suite. Enough with “let’s ask the intern.”
The time for culture is coming. But we keep saying that. How do we hasten the day? Thank you, Twitter, for taking the initiative.
A couple of things I’m liking
Madsbjerg, Christian. Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm. New York: Hachette Books, 2017.
Katarina Graffman has a wonderful TED talk about culture here.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Sam Balsy for thoughts on the first draft.
Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently Culturematic, Flock and Flow, and Dark Value. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. Grant has taught at the Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He is a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project. He consults widely, including Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Sony, Boston Book Festival, Diageo, IBM, Nike, and the White House.
Reading the future is hard. It takes sharp eyes. It takes lively imaginations. It takes smart models. (There is a “good head on your shoulders” joke to be made here, but I’m going to restrain myself.)
Most of all, reading the future takes the ability to see the things coming when they are a mere smear on the radar screen, a trace of green. Is that Southwest flight 1440 taking a film crew to Sante Fe? Or is it an artifact of an aging navigational system. Only the very gifted can say.
On Thursday (Aug. 15), Chris Ryan and Sean Fennessey convened on the blog called The Watch to discuss a new show called The Boys (around the 12:00 mark). This show is interesting because it posits a world in which superheroes now work for the corporation. They have been corrupted. They are cynical. These superheroes are all working for the man.
At roughly the 14:15 mark, Fennessey says the advent of The Boys is telling.
“This is how you know we are in stage 3 of superheroes as an important cultural force.”
Fennessey believes this is indeed the final stage of the superhero moment. The first was defined by Spider-Man. The second was defined (and dominated) by Marvel. And this third as defined by the likes of Dead Pool, Suicide Squad and now The Boys. Here at stage 3 the genre gets darker, nastier, more worldly. Idealism is swapped out for story lines and characters that are more complicated and less predictable.
Hey, presto. Someone makes a prediction. Fennessey takes a stand. We have a prediction. Superheroes are in their last moment. And a great chunk of popular culture hangs in the balance.
Thank you, Mr. Fennessey. This is a real public service. There are lots of people who claim to see the future coming. Almost no one is prepared to stake a claim, to go on the record, to risk being wrong.
In fact most of us in the forecasting biz are disingenuous. We don’t often make predictions. And when we do, we erase them, the better to create the impression that we are faultless, immaculate, batting at least 900%. When it comes to predicting the future, people like to backdate their checks and otherwise fudge the record.
This is cowardly, but it is also disappointing. Because predictions are useful even when they are wrong. They tell us about possible futures (“adjacent futures” as Stuart Kauffman calls them). Now we are prepared. Now some of us can look at that smear on the radar and go, “You know, I think that could be that thing Fennessey was talking about.”
It’s useful to look for alternate explanations. As part of our “Superhero watch,” I propose two. I am not saying Fennessey is wrong. I am saying let’s get our best ideas on the table, the better to see the future coming.
1) What Fennessey sees in the advent of stage 3 is perhaps not the Icarian fall of superheroes. It may be a simple case of genre going post genre. And let’s face it, it had to. Superheroes were increasingly, to use a second term from Stuart Kauffman, “overformed.” They had quit growing. Increasingly they were a forced march, an exercise in the indubitable. We could see outcomes a long way off. Change or die, it applies even to superheroes.
2) What Fennessey sees as the advent of stage 3 is part of a larger development identified by Hargurchet Bhabra, the Canadian novelist and culture guru. Bhabra observed the improvements taking place in popular culture and said, in effect, “As long as popular culture was the captive of commercial forces, it was going to disappoint from any genuinely creative or intellectual point of view. But now that is now also the possession of large and active audiences, it is getting steadily better. And that means, at some point, popular culture becomes culture plain and simple.” By this reckoning, the superhero arc is following the trajectory of everything in (popular) culture. It started small. It’s getting better. This means letting in the dark, amongst other things.
I don’t intend to make a prediction about Fennessey’s prediction. It was a moment of illumination for me. I am trying to map and track everything in contemporary culture so anytime I can get a head’s up from an expert, my job is easier and I am grateful.
One more methodological point for the trend watching reader, what are the best metrics for tracking the genre and constructing our “superhero watch?” I would be grateful for any and all suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Speaking of the “adjacent possible,” see what Rick Liebling is doing with the idea here. Very interesting.
Check out the rate for Wired subscriptions. 10 bucks! I was looking at the Kauffman article on Wired and up came the inevitable “subscribe now” invitation. “Great,” I thought, “someone else wants $100 for a subscription.” This has got to be the best bargain in publishing.
I was reading Axios today and came across an article that describes the desperate conditions of some American neighborhoods.
Working with data collected by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Kim Hart reports several problems:
In many post-industrial cities, vacancies are still at “epidemic levels.”
It’s not just an urban problem; rural areas and small towns can have a vacancy rate nearly twice as high as major metro areas.
Abandoned properties are a significant drain on municipalities because they are expensive to police, drag down the value of surrounding properties, and reduce tax revenues.
This crisis can go from bad to worse.
Hard-hit legacy cities are dealing with some degree of “hypervacancy.” When vacancies rise above about 20% of a community’s total properties, the number of vacant buildings may grow indefinitely and the market stops functioning, according to Alan Mallach of the Center for Community Progress.
Angie, a friend, recently told me about her brother’s work in a midwestern city.
He was living in Seattle when he decided to see what he could do to repair his home and native city. He called friends from high school and together they put to work.
Wouldn’t this make a great HGTV show? HGTV has enjoyed a big success covering renovation teams of several kinds. Fixer Upper, Good Bones, Flip or Flop, Rehab Addict, to name a few. Indeed, this is one of the real success stories of reality TV.
I couldn’t help wondering whether this might not be an idea for a new HGTV franchise. How about a show that features Millennials helping to rebuild a neighborhood? This would be a story about renovation in the literal sense. But it also renovation of community, neighborhood life, urban economies and the American city. Angie’s brother is all about this bigger picture.
And surely a bigger picture would be good for HGTV. There is something cozy and charming about their present narrow focus, individual homes, families, reno projects. But there is always a bigger picture, and this would open up story-telling vistas for HGTV.
Best of all, HGTV could help us reckon with a compelling social problem.
The Venn diagram in question. How can we make these circles intersect?
Call it City Salvage, or Reno, not demo, or Reno rescue.
I have reached out to “Angie’s brother” and if he is prepared to let me, I will give you more details in a subsequent post.
Thanks to Patrick Gorski for the image and to Pamela, my wife, for help with naming.
A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the 2019 Global Business Anthropology Summit held on the New York City campus of Fordham University. Melissa Fisher organized the panel I was on, as wereCaitlin M Zaloom, Rachel Laryea, Gillian Tett, and Christina Wasson. (Thanks to Aida Ford, Timothy Malefyt, and Robert Morais for organizing the Summit and to Ed Liebow for his inspirational opening remarks.)
Melissa asked us to come with brief remarks prepared. Naturally I forgot and was obliged to scribble notes as the microphone began to work its way across the stage towards me. (Luckily I was sitting at the far end.)
After the event, Melissa asked us for “a very short summary” of our remarks and naturally I got this wrong too.
Here’s is my not-very-summary summary of my remarks at the event.
1. one of the objectives of business anthropology is to fund our anthropology. We need to talk more about a model that is both academic and consulting. Too often the pressure of business, or the reeducation pressed upon us by business practice, means we cease to be practicing anthropologists. Our anthropology falls silent. The consulting carries on.
2. I am sometimes surprised to see that even when we do continue to write books and articles, we tend to focus on a) the method of ethnography, b) on the trials and tribulations of the business life or c) particular business problems. For my part, I would prefer to see us do more work on the anthropology of American culture. Because if we don’t, who will?
3. while I’m in a censorious mood, can I suggest that too often I hear anthropologists in business scolding their clients (or dissing them behind their backs.) The presumption here is that we have intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological virtues that they do not. Apparently, we know better and that we are better. I think this is provincialism. We have failed to see just how little we know. We have failed to see how big the world is. What’s worse, we have broken the first rule of anthropology and this is that the respondent is the first arbiter of knowledge. We don’t know more. We aren’t better. Let’s take that for granted in the way that virtually all the anthropologists of the 20th century did.
4. My model of business anthropology has been to divide my life into two halves: consulting on the one side, and my own anthropology on the other. For years and years, clients didn’t know or care about the anthropology side, even when I would dare suggest how useful they might find it. But this too has changed. Now they are quite keenly interested in hearing about what I am doing as an anthropologist. This is because they are obliged by an innovative economy and a dynamic, disrupted culture to cast the “curiosity net” much more broadly than before. I think they think, ‘maybe this anthropologist, despite all appearances and his dubious fashion choices, does have a clue.’ And in any case, most of my clients are actually quite, if not fully, alert to the intellectual, moral, political and or epistemological issues of the day.
5. here are a couple of the particular things clients now ask of anthropology.
5.1 the chance to see opportunity that’s invisible to them cannot see (“blue oceans” in the parlance).
5.2 the chance to see the danger or disruption that’s invisible to them (“black swans” in the parlance).
5.3 the chance to dig down and discover assumptions (Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge”) they did not know they were positing.
5.4 the chance to see how new developments might “break” (to use a golf metaphor prized by the C suite or a snookers one that’s not). Anthropologists are always looking broadly. And we are always looking systematically. And we have a clue about self, home, family, community, networks, and work are variously constituted. So we do have the ability to see how small changes may or may not become big ones.
6. Every anthropologist who works in the business world understand that he or she is obliged to rework theory and method almost continuously. (That is, not insignificantly, one of the things that gives the business anthropologist a leg up on his or her academic contemporaries. We are tested in ways they are not.) More specifically, I think that if we are to keep up the idea that we care about a breadth of knowledge (and surely this is part of our stock in trade, the very thing that we bring to the party, the thing we nurtured through the winter of positivism that arrived after World War II), we must acknowledge that contemporary culture now represents an almost limitless water front. There is always something “breaking out” virtually everywhere we look. Indeed we may have passed a methodological threshold and we are now obliged to say, all together now, “I can no longer follow all of the things in play or see the larger whole.” “Whole” is a little ambitious, isn’t it. We can no longer see a larger constellation. And this is the moment I think we must embrace that new quantitative instruments with which to detect monitor and measure the cultural changes taking place around us. Not as a replacement of the other things we do, but as a companion. And let’s remember that “seeing the whole” is one of the things anthropologist bring to the party.
[written as an anthropological response to the New Zealand massacre of March 2019. I was in the field, doing ethnographies.]
I’ve spent the last month out of the shipping lanes of American prosperity, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey. In one case, I visited a town of roughly 1000 people. This town is two or three departing families away from losing their high school and with this, their high school team, and with this, their town spirit. (The high school matters so much in this scheme of things, the town police cruiser is dressed in school colors.)
If the town is on a knife’s edge, so are some livelihoods. The people who run the hardware story can hear the Amazon dragon over the hill side. Not far behind, robots and AI. And there are all the other problems of American life: poverty, opioid and other kinds of drug abuse, unemployment, families damaged by violence, poverty, and divorce, kids who manifest as aimless, lost even.
It’ll probably be ok. This town has survived many challenges. I walked past a home-made flag pole on top of which was a model airplane in the form of a Lancaster bomber. The work of a hobbyist? A celebration of someone’s departure for service in 1940’s Europe? A way to memorialize loss? Bad things happen. The town has a way of carrying on.
But this time might be different. The uncertainties are stacking up. And when you throw in a few imponderables, and some people begin to lose their nerve and turn to wild thinking and fault finding, and really bad things draw nearer.
Back in a city, plenty more problems. Structural misery, a system of drug abuse, a permanent class of hopeless people, an institutionalized inequality. To be sure the inner city is filled with lifeboats, churches, hospitals, soup kitchens, libraries, shelters. All of them really making an effort without any hope of making a difference.
This is where New Zealand might be said to start. This underclass in an inner city used to be a mystery to the rest of us. They were people we said had failed. They were absolutely other others. But they might as well have been another species. They were “losers.” And by stages this classification has given way to the understanding that, ‘no, actually, that could happen to be me.’ And for some the revelation is still more frightening: ‘that will be me. If things don’t change.’ (Things have been tough enough for long enough that it’s like we’re wearing Frank Capra glasses. You know, the ones that come from watching It’s A Wonderful Life over the holidays. We can see the future, good and bad.)
There are three groups to consider. The first is frightened and angry. They can be mobilized in the ballot box but are otherwise passive. The second is frightened and angry and actively looking for a scape goat. ‘Who is to blame? It’s not going to be me. I worked hard. I did everything asked of me. I sacrificed.’ This group is intellectually mobilized. They call in. They are anti social on social. The third group takes things one horrifying step further. They believe that the world can be restored to order by the murder of ‘outsiders.’ Killing ‘outsiders,’ to some this is a socio-political act, a method of re-equilibration.
And this ‘argument’ would be less compelling if anyone else was making an effort, if people who believe themselves in peril could point to politicians, bureaucrats, NFPs and identify someone who has created something more promising than a life boat.
But they don’t see much of this. They see a Washington filled with people who found a way to help themselves to public resources. They see talk show hosts grown rich as Croesus trafficking in grievance…not solutions. They see intellectuals elites (by which they mean you and me) who are doing nicely. When asked why we have not been more active in coming to their aid, we say things like “well, the economy changes and people are obliged to change with it. Sure it’s going to be painful, but an adjustment has to happen on the ground. People have to do it themselves” People have taken pains to tell me how little comfort this brings them when they are lying in bed at 4 in the morning, wondering if they are going to lose their home.
So what about solutions? I have to say that growing up in Canada, we used to think of the US as a nation of problem solvers, people who took could not wait to exercise their ingenuity.
The solution pieces are easy enough to see. Local economies in a small town are in peril. At least the industrial economies are. The artisanal economies on the other hand are flourishing. Thanks to the revolution put in train by our Mao, Alice Waters, Americans have rethought what they want to eat, where they want to eat it, how they want it grown, harvested and brought to market. The artisanal movement has transformed consumer taste and preference, and not just in food. Ideas of luxury, extravagance, satiety, satisfaction, indulgence, all of these are on the run. Take a bow, Ms. Waters.
A companion change in culture is taking place as boomers (of whom I am one) have crept towards retirement. To no one’s surprise, they are rejected cultural conventions for aging and insisted on a new model sometimes called the Third 30. This says that with enough health and wealth, sometime can redefine themselves radically. (So much for the gentle decline model.) And this create a large, well funded, deeply experienced labor class that is eager to take on new challenges.
Back to the little town on the verge of losing its high school. With the right will and initiative, we could redefine what a teacher is and bring boomers into the loop. Costs of education drop, town spirit perseveres, the police cruiser keeps its colors.
And while we are at it, lets invite artisans to come live here. Now the local economies are somewhat protected from Amazon, AI and the robots. New sources of revenue, tax and otherwise, open up. And notice we know have an economy to which some people living in the inner city can contribute. So let’s invite them too. This little town is vastly better than a life boat.