Tag Archives: Transformations

Orphan Black and involuntary improv

Orphan Black, the new show on BBC America (Saturday at 9:00 Eastern) is a pleasure. The theme is multiplicity, the writing is good, the acting is strong.

Seven women discover themselves to be clones. They are genetically identical.  But that’s where their similarities end.

Raised in different circumstances, countries and cultures, the “orphans” manage to represent some of the great diversity of the contemporary world. 

These differences are enough to force them apart.  But someone is trying to kill the clones so they are now obliged to work together.

Saturday, the “soccer mom” clone must stand in for the “Punk” clone.  She must persuade everyone that she is the mother of the Punk’s daughter.  (The daughter spots her immediately.  ”You’re not my mother.”)  

The soccer mom has an hour to get ready for her big performance, an hour to throw off suburban nicities and take on a brawling, street-smart cynicism.  She is aided by the Punk’s brother who says something like “Oh, God, this calls for a complete reverse Pygmalion.”  

It’s one of those lovely moments, where an actress playing one person must now play that person playing a second person.   Hats off to Tatiana Maslany, the very gifted actress who plays the clones.  

The theme here is forced transformation, aka involuntary improv.  As Orphan Black assumes the identity of another clone, the challenges come fast and furious.  In rapid succession, she discovers that she has an American accent, a stylish condo, a dolt for a boyfriend, $75,000 sitting in the bank, a career as a police detective, and that she is under investigation for a crime she can only guess at.  

In the title of the best book on improv, Orphan Black must deliver “something wonderful right away.”  This is improv in real time, under unforgiving pressure, with dire consequences attending failure.  

I believe we are seeing this theme more and more in contemporary culture because it is more and more a theme in contemporary life.  Increasingly, it’s what life is like.   

For more on this argument, see my book Transformations, on Amazon, by clicking here.  

Multiple selves and alternate realities: from Goldman Sachs to Earth 2

The new film, Another Earth, is about the sudden appearance of a new planet, floating in the heavens, not very far away (as pictured).

It is, apparently, a second earth that duplicates our own. They call it Earth 2.

“Who is your other you?” the film asks.

Once more popular culture, drawing from string theory, among other things, contemplates transformational options and multiple selves.

But it is not just popular culture that cares about the theme. It turns out the writer, star, and producer, Brit Marling, began her professional life as an analyst at Goldman Sachs.

So she knows a thing or two about multiple selves and alternate realities.

Of course, Marling’s earth 1 (investment banking) and her earth 2 (Hollywood) are not duplicates. Being a citizen in good standing in both of them takes an unusual person, real transformational range, and a daunting act of reinvention.

It’s kind of wonderful that after Marling made the transition she wrote this filmic Valentine to alternate realities and the process of moving between them.


For more on the theme have a look at my book Transformations 

Please come join my circles at Google +.  

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

Eat, Pray, Love (repeat as necessary)

I finally had a look in on Eat, Pray, Love, the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert that sold 4 milllions copies in paperback and this summer became a movie starring Julia Roberts.  (I know I am late to this, but, as an anthropologist who studies contemporary culture, I’m trying to keep up with everything.)

Three things struck me.  

1. This book is tremor material.  It begins with a repudiation.

Wasn’t I proud of all we [Gilbert and husband had] accomplished–the prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the apartment in Manhattan, the eight phone lines, the friends and the picnics and the parties, the weekends spent roaming the aisles of some box-shaped superstore of our choice, buying ever more appliances on credit?  I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life–so why did I feel like none of it resembled me?  Why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper, and the social coordinator and the dog walker and the wife and the soon-to-be mother, and — somewhere in my stolen moments–a writer…?

This is a thoroughgoing "no" to the consumer society, and I couldn’t help wondering whether we shouldn’t read the immense popularity of Eat, Pray, Love as an indicator of seditious thoughts and impending realities.  

No one is very keen on revolution in a downturn, but come the return to prosperity, it’s just possible we will have fewer takers than usual.  We may be looking at what Mohamed El-Erian, a prince of the investment markets, calls the "new normal," a time in which people swear off material goods.  I’m on record as arguing that there will be no enduring new normal, but Gilbert’s book gave me pause, as tremors will.  

But Gilbert is saying "no" to more than the consumer society.  She is actually saying "no" to husbands, babies and suburbs, and "yes" to a spiritual quest.  And if this is what speaks to 4 million readers, then we are could be on the verge of cultural revolution that resembles in the late 60s or the early 90s.  

Wow!  In our culture, many things are possible.  So the anthropologist (and fellow traveller) must keep track of everything happening at the moment AND all the alternatives this present will smuggle as stow-aways into the future.  At the moment, it feels like we live in a relatively orthodox cultural moment, but then the present always has this "home field" advantage.

The "now" comes equipped with its own feeling of inevitability.  But let’s not give in to this feeling. It’s a trickster in our midst.  The trickster that pretends it isn’t.  Or to borrow, and adapt, the immortal language of The Usual Suspects, ‘the greatest trick that culture ever played was to persuade us that it doesn’t exist.’

2.  Gilbert, a creature of her time.  Gilbert’s quest feels to me a little like the traditional mission of the avant-garde artist. She is keen to discover her real self, the one concealed by a middle class commitment to husbands, babies and suburbs.  But it’s not long before we see that she is also a postmodernist.  For she is searching not for a single self, but for several of them.

This is a book about eating, praying AND loving.  Gilbert seeks her self in Italy, India AND Indonesia.  Gilbert  is tempted along the way to cultivate one of these existential modalities. But no. She refuses to choose.  

The great Sufi poet and philosopher Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most wanted in life.  If any item on the list clashes with any other item, Rumi warned, you are destined for unhappiness.  Better to live a life of single-pointed focus, he taught. … What if you could somehow create an expansive enough life that you could synchronize seemingly incongruous opposites into a worldview that excludes nothing. …  I wanted worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence–the dual glories of a human life.

This is the postmodern voice.  When told that one ‘life choice,’ one ‘self choice,’ must cost us the other, the postmodernist says, "I refuse to choose.  I will have them all."

Thus when Elvis Mitchell asked Steven Soderbergh how he prepared for the movie Out of Sight, the director said he said to himself, "If you blow this, you will be doing art-house movies for the rest of your life and that’s as bad as doing big budget things.  I wanted to do both."  Choosing between art house and big budget, this was the cross on which filmmakers of a previous generation had crucified themselves.  Because in those days you had to choose.  Not Soderbergh, and not Gilbert.  Not any of us.  Postmodernists don’t.  

3.  Gilbert, perhaps an architect of her time?  Understanding Steven Soderbergh and people like him was the mission of a book I published a couple of years ago called Transformations: constructing identity in contemporary culture.  My anthropological mission was to figure out how to describe a culture in which people claimed this kind of latitude and liberty for themselves.  

This book ends with my account of something I call "expansionary individualism."  This is too grand a term, to be sure.  It came to me while sitting in Central Park beside the reflecting pool.  Some guy was sending a small wooden sailing ship out across the water, and just as it was about to crash into the concrete lip of the pool, he would catch it and push it out again. And I thought to myself, "Hey, c’est moi.  My life in a nut shell (and reflecting pool). Journeys don’t end neatly.  Moments before disaster, I just push off again."  

This is what it’s like to live lives in a culture of expansionary individualism: selves accumulate, experiments come and go, things get messy and stay messy.  We just keep going.  My favorite description came from someone, I forget who, who said, "my self is like a low rent motel.  There are many people living here, we are not all on speaking terms, and frankly everyone’s a little alarmed by the guy in 2C."  (It seemed to me apt that so much of Christopher Nolan’s Memento was shot in a motel.)  

Perfect.  Postmodernism would have to result, I supposed, in disorder, multiciplity in mess. But that’s not how Gilbert sees it.  Her mission was a quest not just for many selves but for a harmony between them.  Hey, presto.  Artist to the rescue.  No sooner have we invented a culture of commotion than an artist steps up and suggests a way we might return to order. That is, I guess, what we pay them for. 


Gilbert, Elizabeth. 2010. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Penguin.  (Kindle location 360-374 for first quote, 686-699 for second)

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

Rich, Motoko. 2009. “Eat, Pray, Love. Then What? Get Married.” The New York Times, August 20 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/20/books/20book.html?_r=1 (Accessed August 3, 2010).  (source for sales figures.)


I can’t find the source for the Soderbergh / Mitchell quote.  

DNA, string theory and what might have been

Dear Grant McCracken,

The automated search has found a new match that meets your current mtDNA search criteria:

Jeffrey Blankenship, 0 mutational difference.

Every so often I get an email from a company called Genebase.  It informs me that they have found a match.  Good news! An addition to their database matches my DNA signature.

Yesterday, Genebase informed me that I was a match with not only Mr. Blankenship.but Marshall Eltzey, Carlos White, and Delmar Albert Dyreson.

Delmar Albert Dyreson!  Tell me more!

That’s the problem.  Genebase tells me almost nothing about the people to whom I am matched.  Take Delmar Albert Dyreson.  Genebase says only that he is living and male.

But I want all the details!  Where does Mr. Dyreson live, what does he do for a living, what’s he like as a person?

I don’t want to befriend Mr. Dyreson.  I just want a glimpse of his life.  And why?  Because if we really have DNA in common, Mr. Dyreson is an opportunity to see what might have been. If the universe exists as endless variations of itself, why not make this the grounds for variation?  At least for imaginative purposes.

Yes, of course this is fanciful.  But people have used much smaller similarities to identify with one another.  How about: "our parents both came from the old country.  We kinda feel like brothers."

Mr. Dyreson and I have a more substantial connection.  None of that "sons of the soil" crap for us.  We are actually made of the same stuff. And on the strength of this connection, I can dream.  What might my life had been if I can been born into his family, country, language. Sure, it’s a footless enterprise.  I don’t really learn anything about myself.   But it’s fun.

A Google search tells me that there was a Delmar A. Dyreson at the 601st meeting of the American Mathematical Society held in New York City in 1963.  Interesting?  Not really.  But I do notice Dyreson institutional address is given as New Mexico Highlands University.   Somehow this man found his way to the deep obscurity of the high desert, a place that vibrates with a spirituality that evades even the most speculative math.  Much better, thank you.  I’ll take it from here.

Delmar, sir, if you get this message, let’s compare notes.


McCracken, Grant.  Transformations.  Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press. here.

Note: this post was lost due to Network Solutions incompetence.  It was reposted December 26, 2010.  

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."