Category Archives: Continuities

Syd McCusker (1955-2008)

Syd_3 My sister Syd died on September 25. Not even a really bad photo can conceal how vivid she was. 

Syd lived in Victoria, a place that didn’t seem to me ever really to suit her.  It’s a place filled with hippies, retirees, and bureaucrats, people  sure to provoke her impatience.

As a wife, mother, and gardener, she had a gentler side, something softer and more spiritual. 

And just when you began to think that this was the real Syd, you’d find a magnet on her fridge that read:

"Jesus Loves You."

Then a picture of the Italianate Christ (the one with the flowing hair, soulful eyes, and pious expression).

And below:

"everyone else thinks you’re an asshole"

What a magnificent sister.  I always felt a bit dozy by comparison, a bit slow on the uptake, a little too credulous.   She was the least little little sister. 

Topic stack # 3

I am suffering a build-up of topics and so I am going to note a few of them here.  If someone would care to write them up into something intelligible and interesting, that would be great.

1)  Interesting vs. Interesting

One of the differences between Interesting2008 NYC and Interesting2007 London might have been that the English did a better job of giving presentation the outcome of which was unpredictable.  This really is discourse released from genre, and it was fun to listen to especially because there was a "no looking ahead" rule in place.  The presentation was, in this case, a shaggy dog story.  What the Americans did that the English did not was present from within someone else’s persona.  So we had a great visit from Bud Melman from the Mad Men mailroom.  Azita Houshian appeared as Jane Eyre. 

2) Paranormal romance. 

Someone mentioned this over drinks at Eric Nehrlich’s good-bye party as a new category in fiction.  And this is when you know women are really giving up on men, when they begin recruiting creatures from other worlds.  The new TV show that features vampires would fall into this category.  I am not sure what else is intended.  This is flat out interesting and a thesis waiting to happen for the anthropology student who is up for the challenge.

3) livery in America. 

A livery is a uniform  or other sign worn in a non-military context on a person or object to denote a relationship with a person or corporate body, often by using elements of the heraldry relating to that person or body, or a personal emblem and normally given by them. It derives from the French livrée, meaning delivered. Most often it would indicate that the person was a servant, dependent, follower or friend of the owner of the livery, or, for objects, that the object belonged to them.  (Wikipedia)

Favre’s No. 4 shirt already is the NFL’s all-time best seller and current No. 1, according to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. so far has taken 1,250 orders for the jerseys, which cost $80 each, a one-day sales record. Revenue from licensed merchandise sales is split among the NFL’s 32 teams, with a portion going to the player.  (from the official Favre site)

4) The SDG (self dramatizing gesture)

"Oh my God!"  As uttered by a teenager, this is a little linguistic designed to seize and hold the attention of the group.  Ever so fleeting, it is a way to make the social self more vivid and present. 

This too is a thesis topic waiting to happen.  I wrote about it a bit in Transformations but I don’t think I got to the bottom of it, by any means.

One further thought.  In any hierarchical system, things trickle down from high ranking parties to low ranking ones.  And we could say that the SDG is a way that teens cut themselves in on the celebrity culture.  For that one brief second, they are the star. 

5) Being black in America

The cultural idea of who an African American is has changed with fantastic speed since the 1960s.  Youth cultures assigned African Americans special properties: a particular authenticity, an entitlement, a currency, and in some cases a thugishness.  I am thinking here of a particular kind of hip hop.  White Americans knew who Black Americans were with such certainty that it looked from time to time that racism had not so much disappeared as changed its valence.  People, black and white, were still prepared to insist on defining the African American, and too bad that someone acting in a manner that defied this definition.  For instance,  God help the kid who wanted to be a poet when everyone else thought he should be a thug.  These wobbles in our culture are acutely uncomfortable, but typically they stimulate inventiveness.  As an anthropologist, I am prepared to guess that people have risen to the occasion and cultivated a fantastic versatility, the better to take advantage of all, even the most contradictory, selves they are supposed to inhabit. 


Interesting2008 NYC

Interesting2008nyc I wanted to remind you that Interesting2008 is meeting in New York City on Saturday. 

This is the Wordle that Rick Liebling created for the event. 

I am talking about how you, dear reader, have Asperger’s syndrome.  I really feel you should be there. 

It’s only $35, pretty good value for an anthropological consult and diagnosis.  We will repair to the Black Door about 6:00 where self medication will begin immediately. 

For details on time and place, go here.

Topic stack # 1

Img_0031 I’m suffering an accumulation of post ideas and I want to enter the new school year in a state of administrative grace.  Help yourself.

1. A Reality TV show of your very own

Your own Reality TV show, but you get to keep the humiliation to yourself.   German firm makes it possible for people to submit pictures of themselves, and have others comment.  Thanks to my old friend Alan Middleton for the head’s up. here

2. Design and design gods at Yale

Here’s a course taught by Michael Beirut and William Drenttel at Yale.  Not sure when it is taught next.  I would love to sign up.

MGT 833, Designers Designing Design. 2 units. This course offers students the opportunity to be design clients, and to acquire the skills and experience necessary to use design to shape and manage products, programs, initiatives, and campaigns. Two working designers will explore design as a methodology, a way of working in modern organizations — corporations, foundations, magazines, schools, even cities. Beginning with an overview of contemporary “design thinking,” the course will survey far-ranging examples where design has been used as a means of innovation, change, message, and influence. Cases will include corporate, retail and non-profit identity; content-rich media and editorial projects; and social and political initiatives. Weekly assignments will involve writing design briefs for real world projects, considering strategic goals, organizational strengths, and consumer and public need. The course combines hands-on exercises, lectures, readings, and cases. Guest lecturers will include well-known designers, as well as clients involved in live cases.

3. Wendy’s and the "meatatarian" philosophy.

In this ad, a guy and a girl are eating at a restaurant.  The girl offers the guy a bite of her salad, and he says, "no, no, thank you, I’m a meatatarian.  I only eat meat and bacon.  You know, meatatarian.  It’s a personal choice."  This gets a version of "guy humor" that is much practiced but completely unstudied in the social sciences. One of the keys to have it works is the delight guys take in faux sincerity…as a way of mocking people who are earnest where they are, um, jocular.  This is contemporary culture generating itself.  There are vegetarians.  They are much scorned by mainstream males who think them precious and self absorbed.  Along comes a creative team and, hey presto, new term, and a small ripple in our culture.  This term is sure to become a "clam," a fragment from commercial culture that gets pressed into service in daily life. 

See the ad here

4. Michelle Obama was perfect last night

I watched the Fox news coverage.  Williams and Barnes thought Obama did a good job.  But Wallace,  Kristol and Rove thought her talk was study in missed opportunities.  I disagree.  Yes, Obama could have offered more issues.  But this was not the moment for issues.

I was reminded of the advice on public speaking that you start a teaching job.  In that first class, your students are not going to hear a word you say for the first 2 or 3 minutes.  That’s because they are "taking a reading" in that odd and interesting way that humans do.  They are sifting through the verbal and nonverbal signs.  They are not listening to content.  They are trying to figure out who you are.   There is a Canadian phrase for this (perhaps it’s American, too):  They are "sussing you out." 

And I think this is what Americans were doing during Obama’s talk last night.  They were "sussing."   Much of what we hear about Barak Obama says that people are unprepared to take him at his word, to accept the appearance for a reality.  He is "other" in several ways, and this means simply that Americans an extra long sussing period before we are prepared to start to absorb content. 

Think of it as a kind of instinctual due diligence.  We just have to log those sussing minutes, perhaps hours, before anything else can happen.  So the beginning of a conference is exactly the time to let the sussing begin, and a talk like Michelle Obama appeared designed for precisely that.  No content, because by and large we weren’t to (or for) content.  But lots of cues and clues, lots of the verbal and nonverbal stuff we need for the "sussing" process.  Rhetorically and strategically, this talk was perfectly on target. 

5.  News of a radical new experiment in anthropology.

This blog is interested in the Human Terrain experiment taking place in Iraq right now.  Anthropologists are famously unhappy about the use of their method for any practical purpose.  As a result of which, the field is now so removed from application it has become something like a museum piece.  But Montgomery McFate, David Kilcullen and the people serving in the Human Terrain program are reinventing the field in difficult circumstances, and we can take for granted that already the field is beginning to change.  There is for instance something interesting about the idea, below, of the "professional counterinsurgent."  The mind bends and then it boggles.  We shall have to wait to see learnings filter back into the field.  In the meantime, here are a couple of words on and from Kilcullen.

David Kilcullen is a former Australian Army officer, now seconded to the United States State Department.  He earned his Ph.D. studying guerrilla warfare in Southeast Asia and East Timor. He is the author of Twenty-eight Article, a practice guide for junior officers engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Kilcullen calls it "conflict ethnography."

The bottom line is that no handbook relieves a professional
counterinsurgent from the personal obligation to study, internalize and
interpret the physical, human, informational and ideological setting in
which the conflict takes place. Conflict ethnography is key; to borrow
a literary term, there is no substitute for a “close
reading” of the environment. But it is a reading that resides in
no book, but around you; in the terrain, the people, their social and
cultural institutions, the way they act and think. You have to be a
participant observer. And the key is to see beyond the surface
differences between our societies and these environments (of which
religious orientation is one key element) to the deeper social and
cultural drivers of conflict, drivers that locals would understand on
their own terms.


Anonmymous.  n.d., David Kilcullen.  Encyclopedia Entry in Wikipedia.  here.

Kilcullen, David.  2006.  Twenty-eight articles: fundamental of company-level counterinsurgency.  here.

Kilcullen, David.  2007.  Religion and Insurgency.  Small Wars Journal Blog.  May 12, 2007. here

the little book that could (kinda)

My_titlz_for_transformations_may_19I will never catch up to Blue Ocean Strategies, the best-selling Business Press title.   But today I pulled within 13325 places of it.  Here at the intersection of anthro and econ, that’s a full day’s work.

Blue Ocean Strategies ALWAYS ranks in the top 1000 in TitleZ.   (TitleZ shows the relative standing of books sold on 

And the kind of stuff I do is usually a 6 digit proposition.  So 5 digits, that’s cause for celebration. 

If you are still wondering whether you should own your own copy of Transformations, let me say this.  This book explores the great new consumer motive at work in the market today.  If you are in the field of marketing, planning, design, the b-school community, you really should own a copy…or two.  Ditto, if you are interested in the dynamics and anthropology of contemporary culture.Transformations_cover_ii

You can order your copy of Transformations (and boost my TitleZ number!) here.  It comes with this lovely cover, courtesy of my talented wife.  (Notice clever play on butterfly as Rorschach inkblot.)

Coming in the Fall: Transformations

Transformations_cover_i Here’s the cover of my new book, to be published in the fall.  (You may have to click on the image to see it clearly.)

It’s about, um, Transformations.  It’s an anthropological account of how we cultivate any self, how we make the transformation from self to self, and how we cultivate several selves at once. 

It has taken about a decade to bring to the light of day.  But, finally, here it is. 

As I say, it won’t be available till the fall, but it can be preordered from Amazon now.  See the link below. 



McCracken, Grant.  2008.  Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.  Available for preorder at Amazon here


Thanks to Pam, my wife, for designing the cover.  Thanks to Richard Shear and Joe Melchione for producing it.  Good, eh?

Home for the holidays with Stalin’s Ghost

Stalins_ghostEveryone needs a novel close by for the holidays.  It’s our respite in the event of family hostilities, sensory overload, caloric excess, or the horror of being away from work. 

Of course, a religious holiday doesn’t mean a mental holiday.  We need a novel that’s soaked through with good choices, from theme to setting to event to dialog to character to drama to every…last…word.  We want a book in which all these choices build orchestrally to an "away" experience so intense that we look up from our novel to discover…we were reading a novel. 

My recommendation is Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith.  It is a catalog of brilliantly successful choices.  It’s thoroughly excursive, if that’s a word.  You travel well and far, well protected from the perils of Christmas, Hanuka (still lingering in its effects), Kwanzaa, and time away from work. 

You can buy Stalin’s Ghost from here

My favorite Martian

Julie In the late 1980s, I was, for a year, installed at Massey College.  For exercise, I would play catch on a field near the college with a Massey student called Mathew.

One day Mathew’s girl friend came out to watch us play.  After awhile, the dreaded question:

"Can I try?" she asked.

Mathew and I didn’t mind showing off while a woman watched us with rapt admiration.  But having to share the game with someone who probably thought throwing a football badly was somehow "cute," this was annoying.

Gallantly, we obliged her.  After about 12
throws, Julie had mastered throwing a football with her right hand so well that her mechanics were perfect.  And I mean flawless.  She started at zero.  The first throws were abysmally bad.  She was, in the language of the traditional childhood taunt, throwing "like a girl."  By throw "6," her form was dramatically better.  By throw "12," it was, as I say, perfect.  She was now throwing like she had never not thrown a football.

This was a little daunting for Mathew and me.  We had spend our childhoods learning to throw.  And it took months (years, actually) to be good enough to escape the taunt that we threw "like a girl."  Manfully, we played on, but it was now clear we’d be very lucky to throw like this girl.

Well, it got worse.  Julie wondered if she could throw with her left hand, and sure enough, in a dozen throws, she was once more perfect.  By this time, Mathew and I were  bordering on humiliation.  Julie had managed to reproduce the key accomplishment of our childhood in about 15 minutes.

Julie was a student at Massey too.  Occasionally, she would sit down at the College grand piano and favor us with a little well formed Mozart.  This was when she wasn’t taking classes in electrical engineering, I think it was.  Julie was just good at everything.

I wasn’t surprised a few years later that she had been chosen to be part of the Canadian space program.  She flew on Space Shuttle Discovery from May 27 to June 6, 1999 as a crew member of STS-96.  The crew performed the first manual docking of the Shuttle to the International Space Station.

Are Canadians proud of her?  You might say.  Ms. Payette has honorary degrees from Queen’s University (1999); University of Ottawa (1999); Simon Fraser University (2000); Université Laval (2000); University of Regina (2001); Royal Roads University (2001); University of Toronto (2001); University of Victoria (2002); Nipissing University (2002); McGill University (2003); Mount Saint Vincent University (2004); McMaster University (2004); University of Lethbridge (2005); Mount Allison University (2005).

But there’s another side to the story.  There is, who knew, a Canadian government agency dedicated to protecting nation’s self esteem.  It took a long look at Julie and decided that the nation had a choice.  It could suffer the presence of someone who was going to make everyone look bad all the time, or it could get her off planet as soon as possible.  I believe, there was a small minority who felt that Ms. Payette was perhaps not human at all, and the wisest course was to "send her back where she came from."

As it turned out, Ms. Payette was only off planet for 9 days, 19 hours and 13 minutes, but everyone, especially Mathew and me, breathed a sigh of relief.

Still fishing

WritingThe manuscript is toddling along.  It’s at 15,000 words, which if you assumed I started on August 6, is about 1000 words a day. 

This is way too slow.  And occasionally it looks as if what I’m really working on is a procrastination laboratory.  My favorite new device is noodling over paragraphs I finished days ago.  I find myself staring at one of them, wondering fitfully if I shouldn’t change this word or rearrange these sentences.

The good thing about blogging is that we are forced to work at pace.  The bad thing about writing is that dithering goes unpunished…at least in the short term. 

Today, I actually started a spreadsheet which I hope will force me to stay at it.  Plus, it proved to be a good way to blow 15 minutes that I would otherwise have spent writing.  Well, the spreadsheet only actually took a minute to create.  I spend the other 14 wondering what it says about me as a writer that I am using a spreadsheet.  I decided Dickens would definitely have had a spreadsheet.  Proust, maybe not so much. 

It’s be a while before I am back to blogging but in the meantime I have a problem.  I need an agent.  Any thoughts or suggestions would be much appreciated.  Please let me know: grant27[@]gmail[dot]com.

Thanks, Grant

Gone Fishing

Loader I have a manuscript that’s proving unexpectedly cooperative, and while these results are forthcoming, I am going to keep my head down, and type as fast as I can.

I bet there will be moments when I am driven to blog, but for the moment I am off for August.

Thanks for reading and supporting This Blog.  And thanks for your patience while I see if I can’t put some of this reflection between hard covers.  Hope you have a wonderful August. 

Best, Grant

Can we talk?

Grant_mccracken_bDeep summer is probably not a good time to address a weighty topic, but I can’t leave this one till fall. 

I am waiting for my speaker’s agency to find me more speaking gigs, and they are not forthcoming.  Of course, this may reflect the market’s assessment of my value as a speaker.  And I bow before this assessment. 

On the other hand, I used to talk all the time, and sometimes the crowd seemed to love me, especially when I did my mechanical hand trick (eyes right).  It rotates all the way around.  Kidding, I’m kidding.

So I am thinking about going out on my own.  This may be a good idea.  It may be a bad idea.  I welcome thoughts, suggestions and advice from my readers.  As your comments demonstrate, you’re almost always smarter than me.

There are a couple of issues worth thinking through:

1) speaker’s agencies are subject to new competitive pressure.  The worst of these is those "conferences" that draw people from industry, pay them nothing but the honor of this 15 minutes of celebrity.  These ventures can drop their prices because there costs are so low.  And this floods the market with supply. 

I like the peer to peer notion that’s happening here.  On the whole, it is probably more interesting to listen to your peers than a pompous would-be guru who thinks too well of himself.  On the other hand, we might be looking at a race to the commodity basement here and that’s not a market I want any part of. 

2) when you are represented by an agency, you stop looking for gigs on your own.  You leave it to the professionals.  And if they have more potent speakers, they organize the competition arrayed against us. 

3) the speaker’s bureau charges a lot.  I am happy to work for single digit thousands.  They like to charge in the double digits.  I am being priced out of my market.

4) on the other hand, the bureau does beat the publicity drum.  They are the place that people go to look for candidates.  Visibility is everything and this is where it is, er, this is where it’s at.

5) Going on my own would force me to look for myself, and it would allow me to charge less.  Is this benefit worth the risk of diminished visibility?

Thoughts and suggestions, and illuminations from your own experience would be appreciated. 

Mystery in a Polish graveyard

Img_1894Who was Nat Litinger?  And when did he die? 

The second question should be easy.  We are looking at his grave stone.  (Click on the image.)

   N A T  L I T I N G E R
           OF NEW YORK
      ON SEPTEMBER 1, 1939

But look again at the year.  It can be read as


or as

Here’s the date close up:

Something happened.  Either the 9 got changed to a 2, or the 2 became a 9.  My guess is that the number began as a 2.  Notice that its barrel (right term?) is much smaller than that of the unambiguous 9 in the series.  It began as a 2, I think, and someone closed the upper line on itself. 

Mr. Litinger’s date of death was first given as September 1, 1932, and someone made it September 1, 1939.

Who?  My guess is that the stone cutter forgot himself.  The year is 1939, but he makes a mistake and he wishes on Mr. Litinger an early death.  This is a benign slip, and in the historical circumstances,  a compassionate one. 

September 1, 1939 marks the official beginning of the German invasion of Poland and World War II.  Warsaw was subject to bombardment from this day onwards.  (The attack on the city began September 9, and a siege was imposed September 14.)  Nat Litinger died on the day that the war started and Warsaw was first attacked. 

For all we know, Mr. Litinger was a victim of the bombardment.  The stone cutter wishes on him another end, another date, another death.  He does this, of course, accidentally, at the very moment that a stone cutter must be most careful.  And now contemplating this record  of his misery, he has to stop and put it right.  Forget the professional embarrassment, and this is of course considerable, this is a man observing the most concrete evidence of what he really feels…at close to the very moment, the start of the Nazi invasion, he’s trying hardest not to feel Img_1841it. 

I found Mr. Litinger’s headstone today in a cemetery on the south side of Warsaw.  This cemetery doesn’t actually look like a cemetery.  Not now.  It looks this (image right).  (Click on the image if it’s hard to see.)

There are no grave stones in this cemetery. 

This because the Nazis took them.  It is one of the aspects of Nazi Warsaw from which head and heart scramble away in a sheer animal panic.   You hear what the Nazis did.  In this case, you can see what the Nazis did.  But this is a serial holocaust, an effort to exterminate not only the living but the dead. You can’t imagine soldiers (prisoners?) coming here and knocking down thousands upon thousands of grave stones.  And what if you did imagine it?  You’d be trapped and you couldn’t ever get back.  You would have tipped into their insanity or your own.   
A little further on, we find some of the headstones reduced to a virtual rubble (image right).  Apparently, headstones were used by the Nazis to pave roads, so we may be looking at the ones that were assembled but not yet used.  (The "concentration camp" principle at work even here: things brought together for eventual "relocation.")  Or, it is possible that these are stones discovered in and around Warsaw and then brought back to cemetery, only to be, shockingly, dumped.  We expect barbarism from the Nazis, this is what they were, but not from those who follow them. 

In fact, these stones, now some 60 years after the war, might as well be warehoused.  There is one small corner of the cemetery where it looks as if someone attempted to return some 30 stones to a circle.  Here and there, stones have been propped up as they might have been in the pre-Nazi era.  Mostly, these stones are as if stockpiled. 

Mr. Litinger’s is one of these.  Just lying there.  Next to the path.  You see the date.  As you pass by, out of the corner of your eye, you try to fix it.  It’s a 2.  It’s a 9.  It’s a 2.  It’s a 9.  Keep walking.  Lots of things in this world make no sense.  Just keep going.  Because there’s a vicious undertow here, and the moment you dwell on it, you can kiss your sanity good bye. 

But this headstone is in English and most others of course in Hebrew.  Clumsy, Scottish, Canadian, Protestant, needy, Anglophone, here’s a stone that speaks to me!  And Nat Litinger, that’s a name I feel I’ve seen before.  (And why is it in English, anyhow? Only because Mr. Litinger was born in New York?)  So you stick on the 2 that’s a 9 that’s a 2.  (How apt that what I can read should read dyslexicly, when, surely, the Hebrew would be limpid.) No, that’s not why I stick on it.  I stick on it for the same reason the stone cutter did.  Because if the 9 is a 2, well, if only the 9 were a 2.  If only time and stone were the same.


See the Wikipedia entry on the invasion of Poland here