Tag Archives: Transformation

Culture is the sea in which business swims. Millennials get this. Boomers not so much.

Here’s a post I published on the Harvard Business Review Blog recently.

I argue that Millennials are now forced to live secret lives in the corporation.

Please click HERE.

Thanks for Karlo Cordova for the excellent (and illustrative!) photo.  

Boris Vian and the mysteries of self invention

I am holed up in a London hotel room, sick as a dog.  

Paging through, the Times Literary Supplement, I came across this passage:

Throughout his thirty-nine years Vian made up life as he went.  When the world declared that his invention did not fit, he spun his own planet, in a parallel orbit, where the laws of Boris applied.

People like Boris are interesting studies for anthropologists,  Because most of us are quite fully formed by our culture.  It supplies ways of seeing, feeling and acting, and we commit to these.  

We do not make up life as we go along.  We don’t spin our own planets.  And when the world is unhappy with one of our innovations, generally we say, “Oh, sorry!  What was I thinking?”  

People like Boris should be impossible.  So should have been Oscar Wilde, Beau Brummell and that guy you went to high school with, the one who was his own world.   

We need to know about how these people invent themselves and then a world.


Campbell, James.  2011.  The Prince of Saint-Germain.  TLS.  November 11, p. 17

A marketing miracle

Gareth Kay, head planner at Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, was asked to do something for the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.  There wasn’t much money. And museums are notoriously difficult to making meanings for.  (They believe themselves immaculately formed.)

But Kay and his team put to work and eventually they created what I think is a perfectly brilliant strategy.  Here’s how Gareth describes it.  

[We] landed on the idea of helping people release their inner Salvador through a photo App that could create surrealist overlays, a modern day ode to the brilliance that is Dali. We decided to partner with someone to give us critical mass of users and distribution, so we reached out to Hipstamatic. They liked the idea so much that they have worked with us to create a lens and film pak for the app (the Dali Museum Goodpak), waved their fee and pledged to donate any income from sales of the pack (it costs 99c) to the museum. [W]e’ll also be projecting images taken with the pak on to the museum’s new building on it’s opening night.

Oh, how entirely interesting.  In London last week, I stole a moment to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum and especially the Tudor rooms…and came out knowing less about Early Modern England than I did going in.  The V&A appeared determined to put as much glass and exhibition tech between the visitor and the objects as possible, and to withhold most of the ideas and emotions that would have made these objects live.  In an age when almost every other institution is disintermediating at a ferocious pace, it was especially tragic.  

How wonderful then to see Kay at work.  His Hipstamatic strategy is all about the take-away, about making the Dali sensibility available to the world.  Cheap and cheerful, unassuming but in its way quite engaging, the Dali pak makes the museum portable.  Dali, I think, would have been amused, and the Museum, well, who knows how museums think, but it’s hard to imagine the Dali Museum isn’t thrilled.  I took the photo above from a speeding car in New York City yesterday.  Thus, thanks to Kay and company, did the museum come to live in the life of someone thousands of miles away.

We’ve got several of the new orthodoxies of marketing at work here.  The Hipstamatic strategy gives us participation, cocreation, and transformation, all in all a wonderful little culturematic.  It gives us the opportunity to install and then experiment with the sensibility for which the museum stands.  Kay makes something that makes meanings for the visitor and in the process the museum.  This is a fine order of meaning manufacture.  

Hats off to Kay, Goodby, Silverstein and Partners and Hipstamatic.  


Kay, Gareth.  2010.  Released Your Inner Dali.  Brand New.  November 5.  here.

Fringe aka Managing Multiplicity

If you’re fan of the show, you know Fringe (Fox, Thursdays, 9:00) can be fiendishly interesting.  

One of the pleasures of the show is the performance of Anna Torv (pictured).

Torv’s character Olivia exists in two, parallel worlds.  So Torv must play Olivia twice.  She must be the same person in both worlds, but the viewer also needs to see small, and telling, differences.

Managing two identities in this way makes the actress a little like the audience.  Many of us are called upon to manage several identities at once.  The differences can be small, but they must also be telling. 

Torv was recently asked about playing the same person twice.  You can hear in her answer some of the difficulty of the task.  But you also hear her voice some of the advantages of the postmodern self, the ability to slide across perspectives, to see oneself with new clarity.

Anna: I was so excited when it first came up, and then we’ve kicked in. I haven’t really had the chance to play the Ultimate Olivia properly for herself. It’s been our Olivia, thinking that she’s the Ultimate Olivia. Then, the Ultimate Olivia pretending to be our Olivia. It’s been a little bit tough to work that line. What has been interesting is how clearly I am now seeing Olivia, which I don’t think you get to do. You don’t get those opportunities where you actually get to step back and look at a character from a different perspective while playing her. Each of them has their own impression of the other that they haven’t met really properly.

So, it’s been tough, but fun. The differences are subtle there. They both ended up in the same job. They both ended up to the point where they even had the same partners. It’s just gentle little shifts. It’s been fun. I think all the guys that have had that chance would say the same. It’s been so fun to play on the other side, which does feel like, “Wow, this is a completely different energy.” Then, I get to pop back. I’ve loved it.

Those who have not seen Fringe might want to have a look.  Bill Gorman, at TV By The Numbers, said today the show’s in peril.   


Gorman, Bill. 2010. “Will Fringe Or Lie To Me Be Cancelled Or Renewed?.” TV By The Numbers. http://tvbythenumbers.com/2010/10/12/fox-fringe-new-season-same-bad-choice/67591 (Accessed October 13, 2010).

McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. Indiana University Press http://www.amazon.com/Transformations-Identity-Construction-Contemporary-Culture/dp/0253219574/.  

Radish, Christina. 2010. “Anna Torv Interview FRINGE Season Three.” Collider, October 13 http://www.collider.com/2010/10/13/anna-torv-interview-fringe-season-three/#more-54255 (Accessed October 13, 2010).

Meaning through multiplicity (aka fluid selves in fluid cultures)

digital natives like Molly
have power over their self expression
they are constantly recreating themselves on line
but simultaneously leaving behind traces of their past selves behind
(from Re:Born Digital, ref. below)

This is Berkman School Interns describing what it is to be a digital native.

Is multiplicity possible only through new media?  No, it is, of course, an ancient engine of creativity and (as we now prefer to call it) innovation.  This summer saw the publication of a Secret Historian by Justin Spring.  

Drawn from the private archives of Samuel M. Steward, Secret Historian is a sensational reconstruction of one of the more extraordinary hidden lives of the twentieth century. An intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Steward transformed himself into Phil Sparrow, tattoo artist, and then into Phil Andros, erotica novelist. Secret Historian is a moving portrait of homosexual life in the years before gay liberation.

Is multiplicity for "secret" identities only?  No, increasingly it’s the logic of life lived "en plein air."  Last week I was corresponding with Shira Nayman about a research project.  I mentioned my interest in multiplicity as a theme and she replied

And wow, about the multiplicity of the modern self—my background is an almost embarrassing pot pourri, as I hinted at (my studies alone–B.Sc. in physiology, a year of medical school, a one-year diploma in religion, a doctorate in Clinical Psych, a MA in Comparative Literature, a 2 year post doc in psychiatry), and now being a consultant, a fiction writer, and a professor (I teach in the Program of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, both to Medical Students and to doctors and other professionals).  And geographical–in the past eight years, I’ve lived with my husband and kids in Mexico, Spain, France, US, and I’m Australian (I just realize that in my lifetime, I’ve held three citizenships….).  Help, it’s sounding scary…  (And I also just realized that we have close family members in four continents, and visit them not infrequently).  Guess I’m kind of a poster child for all this….  (Don’t mean to catalog ‘myself’ in a narcissistic way…just kind of wowing on your point, and realizing that I’m a living instance of it….)

A couple of years ago while living in Toronto and Cambridge, and figuring out how to be an anthropologist in business and a businessman in anthropology, I wrote a book called Transformations.  It opened to no notice.  Had it been a Broadway play, it would have closed the next day. 

It turns out our culture didn’t need an "instruction manual."  The multiplicity continues anyhow.


Anonmyous. 2010. “Re:Born Digital, in Video: 2010 summer interns take up "Born Digital".”  Berkman School for Internet & Creativity. October 1. here.  (Accessed October 5, 2010).

Linn, Denise, Paul Kominers, Molly Sauter, and Sunanda Vaidheesh. 2010. YouTube – Re:Born Digital, in Video: Identities.  On YouTube here. (Accessed October 5, 2010).

McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. Indiana University Press. on Amazon here 

Nayman, Shira.  2010.  Personal correspondence.  September 24.  

Nayman, Shira. 2009. The Listener: A Novel. Scribner.  on Amazon here.  

Spring, Justin. 2010. Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. on Amazon here.


Mr. Spring will discuss his book today at 4:00 at the Beinecke Rare Book Manuscript Library, Yale University, 21 Wall Street, New Haven, CT. This event is free and open to the public

Eyelashes in the field

I flew into Seattle this week sitting beside a woman with great, swooping eyelashes.

She was dressed fashionably but casually.

"Odd," I thought, "She’s not dressed up or anything.  Why the false eyelashes?"

Apparently I think false eyelashes are formal wear.

And I think in a sense they are.  False eyelashes are about glamor, and fancy, or at least formal, dress. They are a big gesture, one that marks the occasion as special.

Yesterday in the street in San Francisco I saw the same thing: a woman casually dressed but with big, fat lashes.

It doesn’t take much to get me shouting with the excitement. Two data points! The results are in, ladies and gentlemen!  We have a new trend!!!

"Not so fast," said Alisa Weinstein at a CCO meetup at the 21st Amendment bar.  Alisa thought my "sightings" were probably not false eyelashes but real ones, and the result of Latisse, a prescription drug that makes eyelashes longer.  Ah, anthropologists, always the last to know.

And now we begin the process of adjustment.  In a couple of months, I will stop thinking of big, fat eyelashes as formal wear.  A few months after that, I will stop thinking, "wow, you must be using Latisse!."  Eventually this social innovation will be as unexceptional as blond(ed) hair.  I never think "Wow, you dye your hair!"  I never even notice the artifice.

We have lots of transformational activity to look forward to.  Some of the early adventurers suggest we might someday use plastic surgery in a more aggressive manner.  (See my book Transformations for a glimpse of Orlan, Wildenstein, and Cher.) Once we start mucking about with our DNA, the sky is the limit!  It won’t be long before our social world looks as odd as that bar scene from Star Wars.  No aliens required.  And eventually it will never occur to us to notice.


Anonymous.  2009.  Brooke Shields Promotes Latisse, Prescription Eyelash Lengthener. Celebrity Beauty Buzz.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2008.  Transformations: Identity formation in contemporary culture. Indiana University Press.  available on Amazon here.

The Latisse website here.

Post script.

This post filed from somewhere over the heart land of America at 31,000.  I am still thrilled to get wireless access on an airplane.  Talk about an adjustment curve.  A reader three years from now is going to say, "Really. That was a big deal?  How quaint."