Category Archives: Transformation

Casting call

Img_0234 I’m working with a magazine editor who has been reading my book Transformations: identity construction in a contemporary culture

She wants to write an article on the book, and to write this article she has asked me to find a "post-modern young woman of many identities." 

So, consider this a casting call.  Does anyone know a woman in her twenties who has several identities, a young woman who is several women?   This multiplicity may come from identifying with several literary figures or film stars.  It may come from participating in different kinds of art or many kinds of fashion.  It may come from participating in one kind of art and one kind of sport and one kind of sociality.  We are looking for someone who has taken up residence in our culture in divergent places.   

Your suggestions, please.  The winner gets coverage in a major fashion magazine. 

Image: I took this picture in Shanghai in the early 1990s.  It shows school girls wearing both their red  brigade bandannas and, you’ll have to look closely, a Mickey Mouse badge.  Talk about diverse identities!


Watching your lives pass before you

Justine_and_her_persona This time last week I went to a retirement party for a woman leaving the New York education system.  It was a big joyous event. 

This was predictable.  Justine, the retiree, is a one of the most animated people  in the universe.  No, I think it’s probably true that one of the animating forces in the universe.  That’s her, second from the left.

Most of the affair following the usual "text" that our culture supplies for an event of this kind.  There were drinks, toasts, speeches, remembrances, tears, laughter, good wishes, promises never to forget, "goodbye" played out over 3 hours.  Pretty standard package…except of course for the animation.  This was Justine standard. 

One thing was different.  Towards the end of the evening, Justine’s colleagues from school put on a fashion show.  That’s them in the photo.  I didn’t get what was happening at first but finally it became clear that what the "models" were playing out the stylistic changes that Justine had gone through over her career.  The fashion show was a transformational review.

Retirement parties are usually classic rites of passage.  Normally, they transport us from one status (working) into another (retirement).  It is a Van Gennepian event.  We are looking at a cultural reengineering as the ritual occasion is used to erase one set of social markers and cultural meanings and insert/apply/impose another.  But Justine’s event represents a new kind of ritual (anthropologically interesting all on its own) to a new social and cultural purpose.  Justine is not merely being moved from work to retirement, she is being reminded of a larger transformational cycle even as she was primed for a transformational opening. 

When you ask Justine what she is going to do next, there is no talk of a tending gardens and winding down.  No, it’s clear that Justine plans to take retirement by storm, as she did teaching.  And to some extent this is Justine.  But I think if we asked most people on the verge of retirement there would be relatively little talk of winding down and a good deal more talk of opening up.  (And this makes Justine quite a lot like the 70 year old man I interviewed in Beijing a couple of years ago.  See post below.)

No one goes quietly anymore.  No one winds down until the very last.  If once the life course was a little like MetroNorth commuter line.  With well marked stops and schedules.  Now, it’s really hard to know what’s next.  Even Justine doesn’t know.  The transformational cycle has lots more churn and vastly more indeterminacy. 


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  China II: Americans of Asia.  This Blog Sits At the …  here

Last note:

I am headed to SF for a week.  I promise to get back to the rationality theme when I settle in. 

Jay-Z, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kelefa Sanneh, and the new transformational modality

Jayz Every one is his own angel.  Especially Jay-Z.

Kelefa Sanneh reflects on the man and his new album, Kingdom Come

Sanneh proceeds with delicacy.  After all, Jay-Z is the world’s "most reliable" rapper and as the head of Def Jam records, the man who controls access to new generations of talent (including Nas and Young Jeezy).  Can a music journalist afford to offend such a man?  On the other hand, Jay-Z’s new album looks to be more risky than risk taking, and it’s not clear that Sanneh, seen so often in the company of the gray lady, wants to have spoken too well of what might prove to be a "post-credibility" album or artist.

But this doesn’t get at the real nature of the problem.  And this is: Jay-Z is at the moment hard to write about.  He is a work in transition.  And on this the eve of his 9th album, he is driven by necessity of making good choices and the luxury of making bad ones. (An Icarus who has reached these heights might lose his wings and still never come to earth.)  Writing this takes real delicacy and it is a pleasure to see Kanneh at work.  (I could hear a little voice inside me say, "Screw the album.  We have the review.")

Well, Jay-Z has never been easy to write about.  This is the man who opened his career with a track that incorporated a Broadway show tune. There is a wonderful bit of footage somewhere of the master walking across Brooklyn Bridge marveling at the fact that he took this risk.  A couple of years ago he retired on the grounds that he had never been in it for anything but the money, and now he had lots of that.  He returned from retirement, the sheepish genius, surprised to have discovered how much he loved the form. 

Part of the problem is that hip hop is now American culture, lock, stock and barrel.  It remains at outsider of a kind, but it has been thoroughly taken up. This is not to say that it is toothless or jejune.  But it is now a song America sings to itself, not about itself, and certainly not against itself.  This has set in train lots of transformations in the community.  As Sanneh points out, Nas got grumpier and Snoop Dogg more playful. 

Indeed, as Josh Eells said recently, Snoop Dogg went from being a foulmouthed, porn spinning, ex-murder suspect to someone publicly associated with Wayne Newton, Lee Iacocca and Jay Leno.  Against all odds, he is hip hop’s goodwill ambassador:

You get the feeling [Dogg] could parachute into the West Bank with some Seagram’s and a pound of L.A.’s stickiest icky–and the next thing you know, peace in the Middle Izzle.  And hot tubs. 

In Jay-Z’s case, the new status of hip hop makes everything possible.  Hip hop can go anywhere.  It can be anything.  Can’t it?  Well, no, maybe not.  Ok, it can’t be this, that and the other thing.  But…  Maybe…  So what if…  Welcome to the world of Jay-Z, the man for whom all things, including  spectacular failure, are now possible.  The liberty, the necessity and the sheer difficulty of self creation in the new hip hop era, all of this creates in Jay-Z an interesting complexity, and in Sanneh the same. 

In fact, reading Sanneh this morning made me think of Fitzgerald on Gatsby.  (As a new American, I am working my way through the classics. You know: Faulkner, Cather, Steinbeck, Crane.)  I started with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and, oh, how I was repelled by the tone of presumption.  Anderson is the seeing eye in the Masonic lodge.  He understands everything.  His characters are poor thoughtless conduits through which history pours.   They do as they’re told. 

This is the tone one hears in the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular when it comes to writing about American culture.  There is a kind of "all your base are belong to us" presumption, a sense that the social scientists knows better than any individual American ever will.  It’s as if any idea is superior to any worldly practice, even when it isn’t very good at capturing that practice. (It’s also as if the final destination of class disdain proved to be the social scientists who claimed to be its enemy.)

The great thing about Fitzgerald is the way he thinks about Gatsby, a little in awe, tentative, remorseless, affectionate, skeptical.  This is the way to think about Americans, the way Sanneh thinks about Jay-Z.  Anthropologists take note: Americans are our Gatsby.  We must be their Fitzgerald.   Or, better, Americans are our Jay-Z.  We must be their Sanneh. 

But there is a larger lesson here, less about the problems of anthropology and more about the challenges of contemporary life.  Jay-Z’s s problem is how to be Jay-Z, what to do with his embarrassment of riches.  Kelefa Sanneh’s problem: how to write about a man who is anything he wants to be.  And each of us, while not blessed with Jay-Z’s opportunities, or, happily, his difficulties, or, and this is really a shame, Sanneh’s prose, has to decide as well: shall we be x or y, shall we be x and y, shall we be x and y not? 

The answer is in Fitzgerald.  We want to treat ourselves, I think, the way Sanneh treats Jay-Z, the way Fitzgerald treats Gatsby, the way Jay-Z treats himself, as blessed creatures with an interesting transformational complexity and, ok, too often, melting wings.      


Anderson, Sherwood.  1919/1995.  Winesburg, Ohio.  New York: Doubleday.

Eells, Josh.  2006.  Snoops…I did it again.  Blender.  December.  p. 178. 

Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  1925/2004.  The Great Gatsby.  New York: Scribner. 

Sanneh, Kelefa.  2006.  Uneasy Lies the Head.  New York Times. November 19, 2006.  here.

Christopher Guest and the English transformational modality

Christopher_guest_ii Christopher Guest mystified The New York Times recently.   His interviewer, Alex Witchel, was surprised to find him "polite and dignified." 

He barely cracked a smile for the better part of two days, so the web of fine lines around his slate blue eyes was unexpected. He must laugh sometime.

Comedians are supposed to be joke-spitting chatter boxes, I guess, desperate for our attention.  The idea of a dignified comedian, this does not play in our culture especially well.

But is it so strange?  Guest is a transformational creature of the old school.  According to the English model (Guest’s father is English), the public self must be unassuming.  No affectation, no self aggrandizement, no kinetic  bid for attention.  The public self should be modulated, burnished, restrained.  In the language of Guest’s most repeated screen appearance (This is Spinal Tap), one may not turn the social self up to 11.  In fact, you shouldn’t go much past 3. 4, tops.  No, strike that.  Not 4.  3. 

The English are really Japanese.  Any departure from due form puts the credibility of the social performance in jeopardy and the capital of the social actor at risk.  They are an exacting, unforgiving audience.  Anyone who dares claim too much or give too little will be found out and made to pay.  So intensive is this scrutiny that many English people live under deep cover.  Their social interests are almost always better served by concealment than revelation. 

Needless to say, this makes comedy difficult.  (Sly remarks are permissible, and that’s why the English are so good at sotto voce comedy.)  But of course it also  makes it necessary.  The English, and those raised in the ambit of the English, seek out moments when departure is allowed.  Those moments are always a little hydraulic, as if the comedian should be marked "contents under pressure," because of course he is precisely this.

Now sometimes the outcome of the explosion is the antic absurdity of the Monty Python kind, Ministry of Silly Walks and all.  But sometimes, what emerges is the transformational option, as when the comedian vacates his polished English self for a profusion of new possibilities.  Witchel saw this.

[Christopher Guest] seems to carry thousands of voices in his head, and each reveals an almost eerily realized character. The character that is Christopher Guest — smart, dry, fiercely emotional about his family and work and just as fiercely hidden — prefers a back seat…

Martin Short was once asked why so many American comics are Canadian, and he came up with a great, but deeply partial, answer.  The reason there are so many Canadian comics is that they are (or were) raised in an English culture where the social self is supposed to be restrained, turned up not a jot more than 3.  It is precisely this that creates the mad excretions of a Jim Carey or the extravagant satires of a Martin Short. 

When you grow up in the ambit of the English, you want very much to get out of the ambit of the English.  You want, you need, the eager embrace of an American audience and a green card.  This latter, it’s your license for transformational exertion and a place of refuge for all those voices in your head. 


Witchel, Alex.  2006.  The Shape-shifter.  New York Times.  November 12, 2006.

The LeBrons

Lebron_james_as_jpeg_1 Last night, the best thing on Monday Night Football was a basketball player. 

LeBron James is the basketball sensation who moved straight from high school to the NBA. 

When Mr. James decided to forgo a college education, the chattering classes took him to task.  You know, the usual: "Here’s a child trading away intellectual development for fame and fortune.  What is wrong with a culture in which this can happen!"

So when Mr. James showed up in a unusual campaign for Nike, the world was surprised.  Last night, for instance, we saw Mr. James play four characters.  In the space of 30 seconds, he was "Business," "Wise," "Kid," and an athlete very like the NBA player named LeBron James (see photo above and YouTube videos below). 

Whoa, Nelly.  The performance were not just better than the average b-ball celebrity endorsement.  It was interesting, daring, dramatic, almost, gasp, artistic! Clearly, the chattering classes had misjudged the kid.  Clearly, LeBron James has his wits about him.  Apparently, the chattering classes were wrong.  (And that never happens.)

To be sure, contemporary culture has moved well beyond the "dumb jock" endorsement.  Peyton Manning is doing ads that are funny and engaging.   ESPN does exemplary ads for itself, often roping in the athlete at hand. 

Some athletes have used ads  to escape the "spam in a can" status that is otherwise thrust upon them.  They treat the ad as an a meaning making opportunity, as when Maria Sharapova did a fiercely ironic "I feel pretty" spot for Nike, the better to fight the imputation that she was a really "pin up" girl who just happened to play championship tennis.   

But the LeBron ad is much better than any of these. And it comes from a kid who is 21 years old, working without the "benefit" of a college education.  Hmmm.  Chattering classes, wrong again.

The campaign is the work of a client called Nike, widely known for the courage of its marketing, and the agency called Weiden + Kennedy, widely known for the brilliance of its work.  But these are merely the necessary condition of the "LeBrons" campaign.   We do not have any thing like a sufficient explanation of this inspired piece of endorsement risk taking.

I have scoured the biographic info on line (as below) for illumination.   This work is detailed and well done (sports journalism has got better, too!).  But no one gives much insight into what Mr. James thinks he is doing. 

One possibility, and it is merely a possibility, is that Mr. James has found a way to reproduce the foursome with whom he came up.  Early on,  Mr. James took a "four musketeers" type oath with Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, and William McGee and all attended St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron. The idea for the LeBrons might, just might, have sprung from this foursome. 

Another possibility:  Mr. James is famous for his team work.  Unlike many big stars, he actually passes the ball.  His passing game is, in fact, part of his genius as a player, demonstrating his Wayne Gretzky type ability to see exactly what the court is going to look before anyone else can.  Mr. James has no difficulty seeing himself as a member of a team.  And now the self has taken on a new diversity, the team work continues. 

There may be something Sharapova-like going on here.  The tag line for this campaign is "You think you know LeBron James, but you don’t."  Ah, did Mr. James feel himself painted into a corner by all the hype that surrounds is remarkable rise to the NBA?  Was this a way to take his leave of the identity being constructed for him for the sports journalists and the chattering classes? 

But why these characters, Business, Wise, and Kid?  "Business" is a creature so extraordinarily vain, he gets on the intercom during a commercial shoot to ask everyone  "please be quiet while I am dressing."  This is the gigantic ego that awaits every NBA star, and it may serve Mr. James to externalize Business early and publicly before internalizes Business.  "Wise" is an elderly creature and retired NBA all star, cranky, opinionated, and still in possession of a towering sky hook.  Wise is the most talkative of these characters, and it’s as if LeBron James wants to hear from this man, even as he wants to keep him in his place.  "Kid" is a child, a creature of simple pleasures.  And it is clear that LeBron James is living a life that absolutely extinguishes childish things.   Nice to take Kid with you while you go.

It is not impossible to imagine that Mr. James constructed the "LeBrons" in order to divide the labor of stardom and make more manageable the life of a NBA super star.   

We can imagine lots of sources of inspiration for this.  Mike Myer’s plays many parts in the Austin Powers series.  So does Eddie Murphy in the Klumps.  But the deeper inspiration may be a generational one.  Mr. James may be engaged in the "expansionary individualism" according to which all individuals claim many selves.  I understand that some will be surprised at this.  They will ask why an athlete so talented that he threatens to eclipse Kobe Bryant, perhaps even to rival Michael Jordan, would not find one self to be quite enough, and perhaps more than his share.   Well, no, finally, Mr. James is a child of his generation.  One self is interesting, and to be sure, the present self is mighty, but it can never be enough. 


Adam Roth, director for United States Advertising at Nike.  "We’re not afraid to try new things.  We focus on flying out on the bleeding edge."  (in Elliott)


Anonymous (a).  2006.  Lebron (sic!) James Returns in a Second Season of "The Lebrons" (sic!!) to Debut Zoom Lebron (sic!!!)  IV Shoe. Press release. here.

Anonymous.  n.d., LeBron James Biography.  Notable biographies. here.

Anonymous.  2006.  Maria Sharapova Dispels "Pretty Girl" Image in First Solo Nike Campaign.  Nike press release.  here.

Elliott, Stuart.  2006.  Nike Reaches Deeper Into New Media To Find Young Buyers.  New York Times.  October 31, 2006. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Peyton Manning: the man and the brand.  The Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  December 12, 2005. here.

Stewart, Mark.  n.d., LeBron James Biography.  JockBio.Com. here.


The "Le Brons" campaign ads:




African Americans, and a new racism

This is a post about African Americans.  I begin with a caveat: I am white, Canadian and mostly clueless in these matters.  I proceed with caution.  But I will not honor the prohibition now enforced in some circles, the one that says, you may not write about African Americans unless you are African American.  This is wrong headed.  It creates excluded status, when we want to end excluded status.  And that’s just stupid, a political correctness that accomplishes the opposite of what it intends. 

There is, I think, a contradiction in the world of some African Americans who have undergone career advancement, higher education, upward mobility.  I am not talking about the notion that says  successful African Americans must  "share the wealth," "send the ladder back down," and otherwise serve as facilitators and leaders of the African American community.  (It’s not wrong to suggest the virtue of these activities.  It is just wrong to make them obligations.  Certainly, most non African Americans would regard this sort of thing as an unreasonable tax, something that looks, as an obligation, a lot like a punishment for success.)

No, I am talking about a different problem.  This is the one that happens when an African American ascends the ladder of career mobility and suddenly hits that "jet stream" where wealth, experience, education, and opportunity conspire to expand the definitional possibilites at hand.   Once people  hit this jet stream, they can cultivate a new set of identities.  Now a certain experiential mobility and certain range of selves becomes possible.  This is not to say that the African American communities do not have mobility and range within themselves.  It is to say that participation in the mainstreams opens up new mobilities and range. 

Mainstream cultures are sometimes unconfortable with this.  For there has been an inclination to suppose that the American African community is attractive, interesting, compelling as a cultural presence, as a cultural innovator, because it is untouched by the fripperies and arbitrariness induced in mainstream communities by the post modernist moment.  The African American world, the argument says, has an authenticity, a groundedness, a rootedness.  It is, the argument goes, a community defined with special clarity by hardship, racism, privation, exclusion. 

Yes, these are racist suppositions.  Oddly, they are made by people who would be really  uncomfortable with the idea that they are being racist.  (The notion seems to be that it’s only racist when you are generalizing in a negative way for derogatory purposes.  If you are being laudatory, well, then, by all means, feel free to let fly and make up anything you want.)

I think it goes like this.  At the moment that some African Americans undertake upward mobility, they are, on the one side, seen by some to have "abandoned their community"  and on the other by others  to have forsaken their cultural identity.  "That post modern mobility of the self, that’s not for an African American!" says the mainstream.  After all, African Americans are more forged by history and suffering and racism.  If they take up the multiple selves of the post modern world, well, they would cease to be African Americans (as we have constructed this out of liberal prejudice.) 

In effect, by insisting on who can and cannot exercise the postmodernist liberty of self invention, we create a new kind of racism.  Even as African Amreicans break into professional domains once denied them, a new exclusion is put in place.  How very, very strange. 

post script

These reflections come from data collected for other purposes here in Chicago.  I can’t identify the larger project and I won’t identity the respondent who was gracious enough to give me a glimpse of her experience.  I hope I have captured something useful here.

Martha Stewart II

MarthaI think my post yesterday was wrong.  The Martha Stewart puzzle can be parsed more deftly.

Martha Stewart is a transformational creature.  She has transformed herself from child of middle class New Jersey to doyen of upper class Connecticut.  She knows the status code cold.  Indeed, she has helped to refine and augment this code. 

But the transformation is incomplete.  By several accounts, Ms. Stewart sometimes treats friends, colleagues, and employees with small regard for courtesy.  She is, to put it more bluntly, darn close to the original BOW. 

It was as if Martha had mastered every detail of Connecticut grace…except the grace.  And grace turns out to be an essential property of the polite classes, the opportunity of real wealth, the evidence of a virtually Asian detachment from the world (especially useful for women who have NOCD husbands who need suffering gladly), proof of what the humanists said was the real condition of high standing, and finally the only real emotion the WASP is obliged to show in public.  Let me put this another way, those who wish to be, or to "pass" as, a member of polite society should not treat social interaction as a high contact sport and conflict resolution as a survivalist enterprise. 

How do I know this?  I’m an anthropologist.  I looked it up.  (Which makes you wonder why Ms. Stewart didn’t do the same.  It’s not as if the humanists are banned or burned.) 

Further to the point of yesterday’s post, this could have been the understanding that Ms. Stewart brought back from prison with her.  Now this would have been both interesting and consistent with the status metamorphosis that is, apparently, Ms. Stewart’s only transformational objective. 

Martha, no Steven

Martha_iiThis ought to be the start of Martha Stewart’s rehabilitation.  Ms. Stewart is out of jail and available for interviews, photos ops and other revelations of how prison life has changed her. 

One of the first of these, a cover story in Vanity Fair, appears not to grasp the opportunity at hand.  We are told that Ms. Stewart is "shell shocked," that she feels the constraints of house arrest, that this empire and empress are diminished. But there is no indication that Martha Stewart is more interesting or complex. 

Perhaps she just isn’t.  She may have been too busy making sure that prison did not "break her" to use it as an opportunity to think about who she is and what she wants.  Or it may be that Vanity Fair was not listening with suffcient care or intelligence to glimpse a more nuanced subject.  (Vanity Fair is so celebratory of celebrity, it routinely leaves nuance to others.) 

C’est dommage, ca..  Here’s what Steve Jobs had to say about one of his career dislocations. 

[G]etting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Surely, this is the opportunity of a cataclysmic change in personal circumstances.  It forces us to give up tangible accomplishment for mere promise, something we could never bring ourselves otherwise to do.   In any case, even if we do somehow, against the odds, recreate this lost world,   we are likely to appear (cliche advisory in effect)  "mere shadows of our former selves." 

But then Stewart was always an agent, never the object, of transformation.  She turned ordinary things into glittering prizes and middle class lives into status spectaculars.   There was no sense that Stewart would ever be acted on, ever allow herself to be transformed. 

No, this is wrong.   As long as both the object and agent of transformation were Martha, she was more than willing.  She began as a Polish-American girl from a small town in New Jersey.  She made herself a doyen of Connecticut grandeur.  And perhaps this is the real crux of the problem.  When your model of perfection comes from the Connecticut playbook, there are only one set of objectives, only one set of things to aspire to, only one path to greatness.

Thank god for the real transformational options of a contemporary culture.  For most of us, they mean that even quite disasterous episodes merely wipe the slate of the present transformation option.  They do not foreclose the possibility of becoming someone new.  When the fates intervene, we can begin again.


Tyrnauer, Matt.  2005.  The Prisoner of Bedford.  Vanity Fair.  August: 110-118, 176-180.


Carol Sandy, for pointing out the Steve Jobs’ speech at a Stanford commencement.  (Sorry, link now lost)

Gender watch

lifting II.jpg

Today, I did an interview with “Jim,” a guy who was a college freshman in 1997. That year, he said, “we all went to the gym and got as big as possible.” Weight lifting was the thing to do on his campus that year. Everybody was doing it. To go for extra bulk, they used a substance called creatine.

“Why?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. People started to notice how a guy looked. Girls would make comments. You’d hear references to ‘abs’ and ‘pecs.’ People were joking, sort of, but guys heard them.”

This is a lot of things but it does seem in some ways to be the work of feminism. The objective of this social movement, this shift in values, was to discourage us from objectifying women.

But that’s not the way things work in our culture. We never seem to roll things up. We are much more inclined to extend the franchise. In pursuit of equity, we began to objectify men, too.

The first generation to experience a cultural innovation, and almost every generation is the first to experience something, usually takes it hard. There is no parental wisdom on offer. There is no “oral culture” that records the misadventures of the previous generation. There is only a new imperative that has to be satisfied. (Personally, I believe this is the only way to explain the disco clothing innovations of the 1970s.)

To be the first generation of men to endure the burdens, anxieties, and near compulsions that come from being an object of scrutiny, that must have been unpleasant. And it can’t be a surprise that some guys over did it. It is not surprising to hear that they were keen to emulate Mark McGuire, a guy who was apparently using supplements of his own. But it is mysterious. As the member of a generation that sought speed by looking for a trade off of mass and lightness (the so called “speed formulae”), the task and the outcome of “bulking up” seems (and looks) unpleasant.

But an important lesson of the anthropology of contemporary culture is that it doesn’t matter what I think. Ours is a culture in which every generation occupies its own small constellation of values, activities, and preoccupations. With children as our guinea pigs, we experiment endlessly. Naturally, the kids don’t mind. Our experiment is their protest. Nor should we. Their protest is our culture.

Please note:
Some of these quotes are reconstructed from memory and not, therefore, verbatim.

Blaming Buffy


How many times have you found yourself standing in line behind a woman of unsurpassed beauty and grace, only to discover that she speaks like a cartoon character?

It is one of the puzzles of American culture that we care so little about the voice. But it’s especially strange in light of the new wave of transformational enthusiasm. People are prepared to spend thousands on plastic surgery, fitness, clothing, teeth whitening, hair care all to make themselves more winning. Surely the incremental costs of voice lessons is small and the benefit great.

I suspect that there might be a Valley Girl influence here. Or maybe this is a California problem, more generally. Maybe the fault belongs to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some women appear to have “weaponized” their voices to make them more penetrating. Others appear to be reaching for the overweening, preemptive authority of a Major League empire.

I don’t know the answer. (Mark this rare admission.) I offer it as a mystery and ask for reader comments.

Connecticut Problems (and other business opportunities)

connecticut shore II.jpg

Problems? Connecticut? Come on. Get real.

Well, there is one: how to survive success.

Consider this scenario. We start at start-up, a beverage company, say. We call it something like “Nantucket nectars,” “Snapple,” or “Odwalla.”

The early days are a trial. Long days, sleepless nights, groaning credit cards, triple mortgages, nervous bank managers, neglected families, and constant, grinding risk.

Slowly the world responds. Our little brand takes off.

We’re a smash hit. After a grueling decade, sales are so good big corporations come calling. Often they don’t always do great product innovation, and with deep pockets they don’t have to. They wait for “naturally occurring” experiments to map the market, and then they reach for their wallets.

Lucky us. This is the big “pay day” we’ve been waiting for. We are 80 million dollars richer. We move to Connecticut, get a house on the water, and wake up one morning to a new question: “what in God’s name have we done?”

Unlucky us. The best thing that can happen turns out to be the worst. We just put our baby up for adoption. The single, enduring, consuming objective of our lives has disappeared. The very point of our existence has been ripped away. This is our existentialist moment.

This is a business opportunity for someone. In a perfect world, we would have seen this moment coming. We would have contracted with a company that specializes in “lifestyle architecture.” This is a team of social scientists (anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, economists, b-school types) called Transformations R Us. Their job is to scrutinize us right down to the ground and to begin building a second career, one that will be ready and waiting, up and running, for the moment of transition.

Transformations R Us creates a perfect second career. This could be what Sundance was for Robert Redford. What Trigger Street might someday be for Kevin Spacey. It might be the foundation Paul Allen created for himself. It might be restaurants in Milan, LA and Mexico City, our favorite cities. It might be a venture capital fund that “seeds” entrepreneurs in the cities of the 2nd and 3rd world. It could be funder of archaeological long shots. (There’s got to be another Troy out there somewhere.)

The transformation that sits waiting for us dock side, one of those 1930’s inboard all-mahogany launches, can be anything and we can play with the details once we climb aboard. It’s chief accomplishment is that it saves us from that terrible moment of entropy that occurs on payday. Whatever it does, it spares us that “who am I, what am I?” moment, and the sudden brown out of purpose and clarity.

I was at a conference recently and wondering through the crowd at the reception was a guy in his 50s who created a brand name known to us all. He still had celebrity power and we were all pleased to meet him. Universities and charities had put him on their boards. People ask him for advice and he still gets “ink.” But there was a distinct note of “yesterday’s man” about him. He had not made the transition. He was merely “keeping busy.” The unhappiness was discrete but palpable.

How much value would Transformation R Us create? How much value could it extract for services rendered? Give me a second and I’ll get the calculator. A lot. That’s my answer. Hang a second. That should be, “really a lot.” We are working for someone who just made 80 million dollars. And we just helped them dodge a bullet and move from joy to joy.

Anyhow, if you want to help start Transformations R Us, send me an email. ( Connecticut has done something to me. I’m looking for a start up opportunity. (Just don’t let me anywhere near the calculator.)

The lion hunter becomes a lion

portugal flag.bmp

Portugal has won another soccer game, so this post is being written to a “symphony” of whistles, car horns, air horns and a good deal of shouting and clapping. Plus, I have a new kitten in the household. Molly thinks of me as ‘the person who makes the toys go.” Occasionally, I have to make the toys go. These are not ideal blogging conditions. (All blog complaints to your local Portuguese embassy or the court of Siam.)

Today’s topic: plastic surgery. According to the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, approximately 860,000 cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in 2002.

Does anyone think Greta Van Susteren looks better post-op? Don’t playmates almost always over do it? Have you found yourself thinking, “ease up on the face lifts there, buddy.” I want to focus on the banality of the transformations that happen beneath the surgeon’s knife.

This is not an aesthetic disappointment, but a cultural one. This innovation does not seem to open up the range of expressive possibilities. So far, it has closed them down.

The trouble is that generally the motive for plastic surgery is to make oneself more “attractive.” And presumably if you are going to go to the trouble, the expense, and the risk of surgery, you want to maximize the effect. You want as many people as possible to think you are attractive. So you go for the most obvious, hackneyed notions of attractiveness. There’s a problem here. Often, by making yourself more attractive, you make yourself less interesting.

What if this were France? The first thing you notice about Parisian women is how stunningly attractive they are. The second thing: they don’t always start with the great features, hair, skin, eyes, and figures that other women take for granted. This beauty is the work of science, art, craft, poise, self possession and a different objective. What they look for is interesting. What we get is attractive.

But this is only the first step away from the banality of the North American model. Others have gone much further. The artist called Orlan was born in 1947 in France. At 43, she began a series of surgical operations to change her physical appearance. Weintraub says,

Eventually, Orlan will possess the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the nose of Gerome’s Psyche, the lips of Francois Boucher’s Europa, and the eyes of Diana from a sixteenth-century French School of Fontainebleau painting. In addition, she aspires to the forehead of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

The effect is a little odd, but why not treat the human face and body as too predictable, somewhat unimaginative, and, in and of itself, banal? Why not reach for expressive new possibilities? The moment we decide it’s not about “beauty,” the possibilities are endless.

Jocelyne Wildenstein was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1946. She became a lion hunter and worked as such on the Wildenstein estate in Kenyan where she met Alec Wildenstein, an art connoisseur. Jocelyne and Alec eloped in 1978 and settled in New York City. It was there that Mrs. Wildenstein made an uncommon decision.

Jocelyne realized that Alec loved his jungle estate, and the cats that inhabited it, more than anything else in life. She returned to her plastic surgeon with an unusual request: She wanted to be transformed into one of the giant Cats that Alec loved so much. Though surprised at this unorthodox request, the surgeon did his best to comply. (Woloson, below)

The effect is very odd and earned Mrs. Wildenstein the title “bride of Wildenstein.” (And finally there is something very strange about starting out a lion hunter and ending up a lion.)

But here too it is not hard to imagine that, freed of the tyranny of mere beauty, people might decide to try on any number of transformations: gods, animals, mythic creatures, historical figures. Everyday a costume ball.

Anthropology is accustomed to seeing these transformations in other cultures. The question is: Could our tastes and preferences change this much?

Right now Orlan and Wildenstein are pretty close to kooks. But they could be harbingers. Our culture tries things on, takes things up, and just keeps going.

It’ll take awhile. But eventually your local bar could look like the one in Star Wars and not because it’s filled with aliens.

Excuse me. Molly believes this would be a good time to make the toys go. Oh, and another thing: Viva Portugal!


Kron, Joan. 1998. Lift. New York, N.Y: Viking.

Rosen, Christine 2004. The Democratization of Beauty.The New Atlantis. to be found here.
With thanks to Arts and Letters Daily

Weintraub, Linda. 1996. Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for art’s meaning in contemporary society, 1970s-1990s. Litchfield: Art Insights, p. 79.

For more on Orlan:

Wildenstein details from:
Jeff Woloson to be found here

Unlawful assembly


Madonna is famous for her transformational inclinations.

Madonna has demonstrated a gift for playing the currents of the diffusion stream and she is routinely cited as the defining token of a transformational culture. ( calls her “pop’s most irresistible changeling.”) She picks up a new fashion just as it is hitting the “radar” of her fans, and she abandons it as it is about to go “mass” and lose its currency.

To give Madonna her due, it is exceedingly difficult to play the diffusion wave as well as she does. Thousands of artists try each year, and only a relatively few succeed. And no one has succeeded as well as Madonna over the two decades of a career. (McCracken, below)

But in her new tour, which kicked off Monday in California, Madonna breaks two rules of the transformational game.

The first rule is that artists (and the rest of us) should DO transformation, not talk about it. Madonna chooses to call her new show “Reinvention.” This is unnecessary (Sanneh of the New York Times compared it to John Kerry calling his cross-country tour “lots of speeches”)> It is also unwise: a little like Robin Williams opening an improv with “and now I am going to become a bewildering succession of people in quick succession. Watch!”)

No, no, no. The interest of live performances of transformation is that they come at us in the real time of the real world. This is what we admire about our transformational exemplars. (In the language of linguistics: we want the direct comparison of metaphor, not the proposed comparison of simile.)

The second rule is that the transformer is supposed to keep moving. Madonna is repeating herself. As Sanneh puts it, the new show finds her “shadowboxing with her own past lives.” Apparently, Madonna has retired from the diffusion stream. Now she is reprising not popular culture, but herself. “There were times when Madonna seemed somehow oppressed by the weight of all her old selves, times when it seemed that she just wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over.” says Sanneh. Indeed, this is what she used to do and this is what we want our transformers to do. Keep moving.

Maybe she’s tired. Living in a transformational society, remaking ourselves with such frequency, there is an unmistakable wear-out factor. Staying ahead of the diffusion curve in a dynamic society, as Madonna does, or did, must be even more difficult.

Or maybe she is dropping out of the transformational game altogether. She appears to have taken to a gentrified life in England with some enthusiasm. (Though surely that new English accent is one her very worst impersonations. Get a voice coach!) New religious enthusiasms also appear to have won her heart. Perhaps the two together, not too mention motherhood and all that wealth, make it more difficult for a girl to follow, or to care about, the diffusion curve.

Poor Madonna. Her concerts were staging areas for the next restless self. They sprinted out ahead of contemporary culture, sending back new intelligence. Now they are more like a high school reunion, with all the old Madonnas turning up, unbidden, unwelcome, and more often than not, uninteresting. Somewhere in the life of this changeling, the transformation stopped. As Sanneh, says, “Having created all those old selves, she can’t now disown them, she can only play with them.”

McCracken, Grant 2001 Transformation. Toronto: Periphe: Fluide. (available for download on this site)

Sanneh, Kelefa. 2004. Madonna’s Latest Self, a Mix of Her Old Ones. New York Times. May 26, 2004. Available here.

Saroyan, Strawberry and Michelle Goldberg. 2000. What’s up with Madonna? Salon Magazine. October 10, 2000. Available here.

Thanks to Jim Carfrae for the head’s up on this one.

Transformation watch: new sightings

This site features a book called Transformation which is dedicated to the idea that most of us are now surprisingly transformational, that we cultivate a portfolio of selves, that we inhabit many selves, that we add and change selves often.

I thought it might be appropriate to note new ethnographic data as and when these turns up.

Two recent sightings:

Sarah Jones as just about everybody

Sarah Jones is staging a one-woman show at 45 Bleecker in New York City. This is an imaginary multicultural open-mike poetry at an fictional Bridge and Tunnel café in South Queens.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

“In rapid success, Jones becomes an anxiously ingratiating Pakistani emcee, a grumpy Jewish grandmother from Long Island, a Vietnamese slam poet, a pretentious Jamaican performance artist and that’s just for starters.”

Some of the appeal of a performer like Jones is that she moves so effortlessly from person to person. We admire this virtuosity, I believe, because we now practice it in our lives. In other words, we go to see acts like this for the same reason amateur golfers turn out for PGA events. They have just enough in common with this activity to “get” and revere the abilities of a Tiger Woods. (The rest of us are inclined to think, “Great, hitting a ball with a stick.”)

Subcultures and culture

This just in!

Leora Kornfeld tells me that a friend of hers just returned from a Lesbian festival in Oregon called Lesbopalooza where some women were seen to be sporting beards, real or drawn on.

This is not the sort of thing that will make for performance art on Bleecker street but it is the sort of furious self invention that routinely takes place on the far margin of our culture. Much of our transformation activity consists in borrowing of some kind, as one group seeks new expressive possibilities by helping itself to the signs and symbols that define another group.

(As an anthropologists, I must say I am puzzled. I never understand why radical groups raid the wardrobes, in this case the physical characteristics, of the enemy. Of course it doesn’t matter what I think, and we make take my observation as a declaration of the limits of my ethnographic mastery.)

Clearly, this is not the sort of invention that will move to the center of our culture. But it is not quite as peculiar as we might, at first blush, imagine. If we all engage in transformation, it is because we all engage in a lively trade of cultural signs and symbols. We are, to borrow the title of the wonderful book by Alan Wolfe, one nation after all.


Teachout, Terry. 2004. One for the Show. Wall Street Journal. May 21, 2004, p. 11.

Wolfe, Alan. 1998. One Nation, After All. New York: Viking.