Anthropologists are drawn to places where culture is a little shaky.
Normally, culture supplies the meanings and rules with which we understand and navigate the world. And normally, it does this invisibly, effortlessly, in real time. We don’t sense culture operating in us. It just does. It’s like language, it’s just there.
But sometimes culture is a little shaky. It has found a world it can’t quite render or organize. And when that happens, wonderful things happen. We understand that we are no longer under “strict instructions.” We are no longer the captive of meanings made. We are now living in a world where meaning and rules are up for grabs.
This happens especially in what Van Gennep called “liminal spaces.” Vegas and New Orleans are liminal spaces for social purposes. Rules are loosened. We have a new sense of freedom. Boulder, Madison, Palo Alto and Detroit are liminal spaces from an economic point of view. We have a new sense of possibility and certain innovations are now possible. Often these liminal spaces sit quite literally between cultures. They come by their culturelessness honestly. There are competing meanings and no one of these sets of meanings has the upper hand.
Which brings me to Panama City. I spend Feb. 21 and 22 to hear in transit from Mexico City to Brazil. And I was stunned by what I saw. This is a body of architectural experiments that are prepared to go anywhere and do anything. See the two buildings pictured here. (This is not a perfect photograph. Please enlarge it and have a look.) This work is gogglingly strange. I’m not saying wonderful. But it is like nothing I have seen in more ordinary worlds, those Gullivers pinned down by cultural convention.
I hadn’t thought about it before but there is no place in the world quite as liminal as Panama City. After all, it sits between both hemispheres and oceans. It’s not quite this, nor exactly that. Talk about a cross roads.
And we would expect a cross roads to be the place where strange things happen. (It is of course that Robert Johnson went to find his genius.) I am living on the surface of Panamanian culture. Here for the weekend. Stuck in a hotel. But what a surface! These buildings are lunar when not martian. And again, I’m not saying they are good. I’m just saying they are innovative. Wonderful in the literal sense, not the approving one. God knows what other wonders lie beneath the surface. Scary, really. The anthropologist, properly terrified by this prospect, gets on a plane and moves on.