I just spent the last few days driving across the massive territory that is the United States via the hot, humid route known as the I-40. (The heat index in Oklahoma City was 118, by the way.) I-40 happens to be strewn with that ever interesting media known as the billboard, which got me thinking about how and why we (anthropologists) use our particular forms of media to communicate information, ideas, and concepts to diverse audiences. Yes, this post has something to do with anthropology AND Kurt Vonnegut. Just wait.
So all of those billboards kept blazing past me. They had all sorts of messages on them, from the blandly utilitarian and boring (THIS SPACE AVAILABLE) to the humorous/weird (JEAN SHORTS ARE NEVER OK*) all the way to the erotic (XXX MEGA ADULT SUPERSTORE NEXT LEFT). There’s certainly no shortage of themes and styles. The billboard medium has certain constraints, of course (size, font, images, and the fact that drivers are gunning their engines anywhere between 60 and 100 miles per hour and only view those masterpieces of highway art for a few wondrous seconds). So billboard artists and advertisers have to make important decisions in order to broadcast their messages effectively and efficiently. They can go with humor, or shock, or offer alluring information that weary road warriors just can’t resist (HUGE, SPARKLING CLEAN RESTROOMS 25 MILES). Similar messages or information can be transmitted to viewers in radically different ways–there are numerous methods for telling drivers to pull over and buy some crap at the next exit.
This brings me to the Vonnegut factor: all things being equal, the same basic message can be presented in dramatically different ways and still drive home a point quite powerfully**. The book Slaughterhouse Five, which critically examines issues such as humanity, war, and violence, illustrates this quite well. While some artists or authors explore the complexities and paradoxes of war through documentaries, films, news reports, or photographs, Vonnegut addressed similar issues through a hyperbolic, sardonic, dark, and twisted little book that is ridiculous, shocking, riveting, and depressing all at once. He communicated his messages in a manner that might reach readers in a slightly different way than, say, All Quiet on the Western Front or Born on the Fourth of July.
So what’s the point here? Why am I rambling on about all of this? Well, because I am often preoccupied not only with reading anthropology, but also with writing anthropology–and how particular ideas/concepts (culture, identity, value, power) can be expressed or approached in a multiplicity of ways. When it comes to communication, style matters. Each medium, whether a book, film, massive billboard or ethnography, can be utilized in various ways to transport anthropological ideas and lessons from here to there. Why does this matter to me? Because lots of people ask me–once they hear that I am a graduate student in anthropology–exactly what it is that anthropologists do these days. What does it mean to me when people are so often dumbfounded about what my discipline is really all about? It means, to be overtly metaphorical about this, that on the highway of life, far too many members of the general public are speeding right past our anthropological billboards (ethnographies, monographs, press releases, etc)–so we need to either look at how we’re using those “billboards”, or stop placing them in deep, isolated gulches where passersby can’t possibly see them.
Yes, these are the kinds of things that cross my mind as I head on my way from Oklahoma City to Nashville at 70 mph on an August afternoon. If you can read this, you are at the end of my post.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that David Graeber’s recent guest post here on Savage Minds was also partially responsible for getting me thinking about anthropology, writing, and the importance of reconsidering how we use media. If you haven’t read it, check it out. A good discussion, indeed.
*An actual billboard spotted somewhere between Oklahoma and Arkansas (I think) yesterday.
**Certain writers who adhere to incredibly complex or even wandering grammatical structures might disagree with me on this, and argue that there really is only one way to express particular ideas/thoughts. Well, I disagree with them, so there.