Tag Archives: provoking culture

Making culture, provoking culture

Social worlds tend to settle.  And once they settle, a fine coating of inevitability forms around them.

Who is what to whom under what circumstances as constrained by what rules, eventually this is completely "done."  We’re weighted down by stasis.

Case in point?  A couple I saw years and years ago in a restaurant. They were in their 70s.  I guessed they had been married a long time.  Occasionally, he would raise his eyebrows and she would smile.  They had shared this meal so many times it was terra completely cognito. Jokes didn’t need telling.  They just need referencing.  This tiny, social world had settled. They were now riding the inevitability through to dessert, and, no, there weren’t going to be any surprises there either.

What happens to couples happens to corporations, universities, cities, countries. Countries? Sure, Canada.  Once dynamic, these social worlds have settled into stasis.  They are now going through the motions, even when those represent a bad, lifeless idea. 

What these static worlds need are provocations, events that "short out" the stasis, so to say. People are suddenly released from the confinement of their settled social world.  They are not freed for long, and revolutionaries are inclined to believe that this moment of liberation will last for longer than it does.  But there has been an "interrupt" as the psychologists call it. For a moment, the inevitability cracks, the rules become clear, the stasis is suspended.

There are a million possible provocations. Some years ago, Abby Hoffman showered the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills.  [Please share other examples in Comments.] There are species of art and/or politics that live for the provocation that will accomplish through imagination what cannot be accomplishment through more structural economic, political and social change.  Some of these groups believe in an "open sesame" event, the one perfect provocation that will set all the dominos tumbling till real and lasting change is accomplished.  This provocation may exist, but it will take a lot of very careful thinking and experiment to discover what it is. 

This is where pie comes in. A couple of years ago, a group of people stood on a street corner in Belfast, Maine, and handed hand slices of pie, pecan, pumpkin and apple, to passers-by. "The idea was to spur community and conversation, one slice at a time."  (in Edge, below.)

Pie is an interrupt.  It forces people out of that habitual frame of mind, the little script that reads, "Ok, that’s the shopping done, now I have to get to the library and pick up Betty at 4:00."  Oh, what’s this?  Pie?  And before you know it, you are sharing pie and a joke with the guy who coaches Becky, your daughter’s best friend..  You are broken out of your routines, out of stasis. 

What happens next depends upon the skill of the pieman.  In this case the pieman is Project M, something established as part of the "design for good" movement by John Bielenberg in 2003.  Project M is works as what Edge calls an "idea incubator."  Younger designers meet to "generate social problems and enhance public life."  Pie provocations had taken place in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Working with the design firm Winterhouse in Connecticut, Project M has also staged a Pizza Farm.

Designers are very good at thinking about provocations.  After all, they are in the imagination business.  They are trained to look at existing systems, spot where stasis lives, and think of ways to make things new.  What designers are not so good at, in my humble opinion, is figuring out what happens next, what comes after the provocation.  Handing out pie and pizza does have the potential for provocation.  But something substantial happens if and only if new arrangements are made visible, thinkable and doable.  Pie qua pie will not get this job done.  Pie has to be the start of something more than a jolly conversation with a soccer coach.  It must do something more than "spur conversation."  

There are social and cultural mechanics here.  (Again in my humble opinion, designers tend to assume and ignore these mechanics when addressing the design issue at hand.  Well, so do we all.  That’s the point of being an anthropologist or a sociologist, getting at the rules and meanings culture works so hard to conceal from view.  I am not accusing.  I’m just saying.)

The Point of Pie

We have used pie to draw people out of their routines, their stasis.  The point of pie is that it carries with it very particular cultural meanings.  It is indulgent, festive and when served on a street corner surprising, funny and lighthearted.  Pie sets certain meanings in train.  It has drawn people not just out of their stasis, but into an amused, curious frame of mind.  We have mobilized them.  

Talk to me, not to Becky’s friend’s soccer coach

This is NOT the time to encourage them with one another.  This is the path pack to stasis. Oh, sure, tiny trace elements of community will be generated, but these will begin to generate almost immediately and they will have disappeared within a month.  

No, we want to talk to us, and this means taking the people who make up our Project M, Pie Lab, and Pizza farm and press them into conversational service.  We want them to be there serving pie and chatting up the people who get the pie.  

Building a gift economy

There is a social science about these social moments, and we will want to consult this literature.  But for present purposes, let’s just say the following.  You the Project Pie person are building a little gift economy.  It begins with free pie.  But that is merely the beginning. Now we want the pie recipient to feel the full effect of our absolute interest.  (Almost all conversation is the opposite of a gift economy.  I give attention and time and interest to you in proportion to the attention, time and interest you give to me.)  

The idea is to gift the pie recipient with complete attention.  This means refusing our turn in the conversation.  (See the linguistic literature on turn taking for more on this topic.)  It means looking at the pie recipient as if we expect them to say something absolutely wonderful.  It means approving everything they say as if it were especially apt and especially well said.  It means, in effect, showering the pie recipient with complete approval.

But is this manipulation?

Well, I am sure some will say, but this is manipulation.  You are asking Project M people to fake interest, as if they were used car salesmen.  And this would be absolutely true if the Project M person’s heart was not pure, if his or her interest were not sincere.  But I am assuming this is wrong.  I mean otherwise you wouldn’t be standing on a street corner in Belfast, Maine, handing out pie to perfect strangers.  

No, it isn’t manipulation

Our interest is sincere.  We do want to know about them.  We want to seize this opportunity to find out who they are, to listen to anything they’re prepared to tell us.  We are doing ethnography in tiny bite size bits.  (Here too we want to consult the work on methodology.) Some people who wish to make a social difference don’t really care to hear from the Pie recipient.  They have a vision of the new world, and they mean to keep banging away at this vision until the pie recipient embraces it.  But if we have learned anything about engaging the world it is that it can’t be about us.  Our best efforts must begin with a study of them.  

Here’s what we hope for.  Gifted with pie and sincere interest, the pie recipient is now prepared to find out who we are and what we are doing here.  They are reciprocating our interest with their interest.  More than that, at this point they kind of like us.  We are funny and approachable.  There is no evidence of cult enthusiasm.  We are by every marker out culture holds dear likable.  And at this point, something miraculous happens.  Several things actually.  People come up out of stasis.  Their mood warms.  Their interest is mobilized. They identify us as someone interesting.  

Pie Project Failure

And this is precisely where most provocateurs leave them.  This is where the pie projects really fail.  I believe.  Provocateurs are mezmerized by their act of imagination, and by their sudden, charming departure from social convention.  Free pie.  Brilliant.  God, we’re groovy,  Our work here is done.  

Pie Project Success

But pie is, as I have labored to demonstrate, merely the first step, the opening gift. And almost nothing will come of it unless the Pie provocateurs are prepared to follow through with some jewel-like intervention, a further project that takes the pie recipient to the verge, indeed into the very grasp, of a new arrangement of idea and practice.  What the pie recipient needs now is a culturematic.  

(More on "culturematics" and other things to come.  This post took much longer than I can afford, and I am completely behind schedule!)  


Edge, John T. 2010. “The Healing Powers of a Pie Shop.” The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/magazine/10pielab-t.html

Post Script

Please come join Jack Conte tomorrow for a conversation on Ustream.tv.  See the link in yesterday’s post.