Tag Archives: Culture Notes

Shitting in Space: Engagements with Cosmic Taboo

Last December, I was asked an interesting question on Twitter: “How much poop is on the moon?” After a quick, panicky, existential reevaluation centered on whether my mountain of student loan debt was justified by having the ability to answer questions centered on feces, I began to do some research. Interestingly, the precise answer was easy to find.

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Some Notes on Toilets

Sometimes you think that a topic would be interesting to research, but don’t have time to do it yourself. I figure that this is exactly what blogs were invented for. So, without further ado, here are some links about toilets presented without discussion (although the juxtaposition of stories is not always accidental). Feel free to add your own in the comments.

Taiwan’s Modern Toilet Restaurant:

Toilet Restaurant
Picture by Fun Fever.

Japan sniffs at Taiwan’s toilet culture:

Japanese tourists are said to be frequently distressed at the lack of clean public toilet facilities in Taiwan. In particular, they are horrified at the sight of bathroom trash bins filled with used toilet paper.

Mainland Toddler Poops In Taiwan Airport, Predictable Uproar Ensues:

In a Taiwan airport recently, someone snapped a picture of a toddler defecating onto a newspaper in the middle of the ground, reportedly with a bathroom nearby.

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Moby Debt (Thoughts on Debt)

One of the things a good book does is to show you patterns which you start seeing everywhere. David Graeber’s Debt is one of those books. Right now I’m enjoying listing to the Moby Dick Big Read in which:

David Cameron, Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry and Simon Callow jump aboard ambitious project to broadcast Herman Melville’s classic novel in its entirety – 135 chapters over 135 days

As I discussed in my last post, one of the central arguments in Debt is the constant tension between debt as a finite, calculable thing as defined by money (and backed by the authority of the state), and debt as an infinite moral obligation which can never be repaid. This tension is central to Moby Dick. Here, for instance, is a passage about captain Ahab from the end of Chapter 41:

They were bent on profitable cruises, the profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint. He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge.

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That “old hometown” motif might be a real place

I was living in the Kansai area of Japan a year after the release of Sen Masao’s 1977 enka ballad Kitaguni no Haru, “Spring in the North Country.” It blasted through speakers in shōtengai and could be heard all day and night on the takayoki-scented streets of Shinsaibashi. It soon became a karaoke classic and later a favorite tune sung by artists throughout East Asia, including Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng. The version by Sen Masao can be heard in this video:

How I hated that song. It seemed to ooze such smarmy sentimental pathos. It referred to that overused trope that later reached a marketing peak in the early 1980s, the notion of furusato, the native place or the old hometown. A Korean Japanese, Sen Masao projected a homey bumpkiness that suggested modest origins, even though he was by then a wealthy and urbane celebrity. He was originally from Iwate prefecture, an area of northern Japan that suffered greatly from the 2011 Great East Japan Disaster (Higashi Nihon Daishinsai). My young pals and I often uttered the song’s sappy refrain, “Shall I go back to the furusato?” in order to index ethnocentric and xenophobic types. Our furusato, our hometowns were still fresh and intact and at least to us, in no danger of disappearing.

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Trivializing the girl stuff

In the 1990s when I shifted my research focus away from business interactions in Japan to the beauty industry, I was criticized by some anthropology colleagues, especially male ones and the archeologists and biological anthropologists. In Japan, older people I met said my decision was a waste—all those years of studying the Japanese language just to look at the silly things women do? Mottainai. This is, obviously, the sort of attitude feminists see as the crux of androcentrism. Girls and women are a force behind many financially lucrative markets that are often overlooked because of their feminized nature. For example, I found that in 2003 there were 173,412 documented beauty salons. By contrast, that same year there were 7,530 wedding and funeral services, 67,789 auto repair shops, and 14,136 software businesses. It is like the point Annette Weiner made: just because men don’t value the activities of women doesn’t mean that the anthropologist should ignore them, too. The dismissive attitude hasn’t changed much, but my list of interesting female-oriented activities and cultural production has grown, and now there is enough for another book. The new work in progress, tentatively entitled Japanese Girl Stuff, includes material on the divination industry, self-photography, novel script (writing system) elements, grotesque-cute aesthetics, Lolita slang, and more.

Seven Ways to Talk to a White Man

Chinese is a hard language to learn, and I’m the first to admit that I have a long way still to go. But for the past six years I’ve been teaching in Chinese and so I’ve achieved a certain degree of fluency even if nobody who spoke to me for more than five minutes on the phone would mistake me for a native speaker. In the United States there is a general assumption that everyone should and can learn to be a fluent English speaker, no matter where they are from. People are sometimes even fired for not speaking English at work [also see this]. But in Taiwan it is the opposite, there is an assumption that nobody who isn’t ethnically Chinese can learn to speak the language. For this reason, when someone sees a white person walk into a store or restaurant the first assumption is that there will be a problem communicating with you.

Of course, this happens in the US as well. I once read of a study where different groups of students were played the same audio lecture but with different photographs of the supposed speaker. When the photograph was of an Asian person the students performed worse on the test, actually retaining/understanding less of the lecture than when the photograph was of a white person. I don’t know if this study has been replicated, but I do think that expectations of communication problems are a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in reduced comprehension. This problem is compounded in a society like Taiwan which has relatively few non-Asian immigrants. But not everyone responds to a foreigner in the same way, and over the years I’ve compiled a mental inventory of the various ways in which people respond to the challenge of having to talk to a foreigner. What follows is a list of seven ways strangers react when they have to talk to me.

First, there’s “foreigner panic” which is often evidenced when dealing with service people who fear having to use English in order to do their job. I’ve seen salesgirls hide behind coworkers who speak better English. I’ve had people standing right next to me turn around as if looking for signs of intelligent life because the very idea that they might be able to talk directly to me never crossed their mind. And I’ve seen people practically bang their heads on the ground apologizing for not speaking better English. Fortunately, a few words in Chinese, no matter how badly pronounced, is usually enough to calm the panic and establish a more routine service encounter (when dealing with young women, this is usually only after some giggling and additional apologies). Continue reading

Les Maîtres du Désordre vs. Les Maîtres Fous

Quai Branly Museum

Ever since it opened in 2006, I’ve wanted to visit the Musée du quai Branly (MQB) in Paris, which “contains the collections of the now-closed Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie and the ethnographic department of the Musée de l’Homme.” With a permanent collection of over 267,000 objects and nearly 3,500 of those on display at any given time, it is one of the most important anthropology museums in the world. The building itself is also an impressive piece of architecture by Jean Nouvel—nicely setting off the collection. So I was happy to be able to finally visit the MQB this past Thursday. It was an awe-inspiring experience and I’m just sorry I didn’t have a week to spend at the museum, since it is truly too much to absorb in a single day. The permanent collection is divided up in to Asia, Oceania, Africa and The Americas. My recommendation would be to only try to visit one section per visit (and Oceania is so huge that it could easily accommodate two visits if you listen to the excellent audio tour).

I want to focus on one of their current special exhibitions: Les Maîtres du Désordre which was the highlight of our visit. Les Maîtres du Désordre reminds me of an MOMA exhibit I visited as a teenager: Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. That exhibit looked at the impact of the very African and Pacific works now housed in the MQB upon the development of modern art. Both are large, ambitious exhibits which seek to draw comparisons across numerous cultures. Both also seek to find affinities between modern art and “primitive” art. So it is worth looking at what James Clifford wrote about the MOMA exhibit before looking at the one at the MQB.

In his essay “Histories of the Tribal and the Modern” Clifford criticized the MOMA show on several grounds: the comparative method used is flawed (they could just as easily have found “primitive” art works which did not resemble Picasso paintings as ones which did), the works they chose are decontextualized and removed from their cultural and historical context, they chose works which are unproblematically “pure” in that they are free of European or other obviously modern influences, and the African and Pacific works are seen primarily in terms of their importance for “our” cultural development from which “they” are excluded. (On the problematic aesthetization of traditional “art” also see Wyatt MacGaffey’s essay “‘Magic, or as we usually say ‘Art’.”)

To what extent is Les Maîtres du Désordre guilty of the same sins as the Primitivism exhibit at MOMA?

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Special Circumstances vs. The Dorthraki

Rex’s last post reminds me that I’ve been meaning to write about one of the most fascinating science fiction worlds I’ve come across in a long time. I’m talking about The Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, which I want to compare with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones [the TV show – I’ve not read the books].

I want to talk about the role of ethnic difference in narrative, but since Rex brought up the issue of bodies, let me first note that one of the interesting things about The Culture is that unlike the many other “highly advanced alien species” discussed by Rex in his post, bodies are very important to The Culture. In this post-singularity world people can back themselves up or choose to live entirely virtual lives, but most choose to have bodies anyway. These bodies are enhanced, to be sure: they have neural laces to tie them to the co-evolved artificial Minds which run their space ships, and they have extra glands which give them whatever drugs they might like at a mere thought, but they are still bodies. Over their long lifespans they can choose to be male or female at will, and many go through several changes over a lifetime. The Minds too can take on human avatars, and the nature of these avatars is an important reflection of their personalities, although we are frequently reminded that they are not human. For instance, they can eat and defecate, but they don’t have to and the food which is passed through their bodies is still edible since it hasn’t really been digested. We are even told that some humans like to eat avatar-digested food. But then who understands humans? Continue reading

Highly Advanced Alien Species

I was watching Star Trek the other day (Enterprise season 4) when the crew of the Enterprise met yet another highly advanced alien species. Not just ‘faster warp drives’ or ‘bigger weapons’ but a really, truly, highly advanced alien species. So advanced that, like others that have appeared on the show, they didn’t have bodies.

Take a second to think about it: why do we assume that the more advanced you get, the less body you will have?

Star Trek is a product of its time featuring all the teleological unilinear evolution you could shake a stick at — more Leslie White and Herbert Spencer than Julian Steward and Charles Darwin. I understand that it views all life-forms as being located on a Victorian continuum with Papua New Guinea on one end and NASA on the other. But even in a world obsessed with technological improvement, since when did the body become something that, technically, it would be better for us to get rid of? I really want to hammer home the incredibly non-obvious nature of this question in: what is technologically backwards about having a body?

The answer, of course, is that contemporary Eurochristian cultures have a long history of viewing the body as the dirty, uncontrolled, appetitive fleshvelope that our pure, divine souls have been crammed into. All of the Star Trek tropes of floating pools of light entering our bodies to possess our engineers and lieutenant commanders; their need to lower themselves by using physical speech to communicate; the promise that someday we might be able to comprehend the infinite majesty of the universe once we’ve joined them…. totally different from angels, amirite?

One of the oddities of anthropology is that once you’ve tuned into a cultural pattern, you see it everywhere — that’s how you know you’ve gotten your analysis right. But for most Americans, say, it takes quite a lot of exposure to American and British culture to see the big picture. Not just because you are too close (although that is a problem) but because you spend most of your life going to work, cooking dinner, etc. and not reading Sacvan Berkovitch and Perry Miller. Or for that matter Madame Blavatsky.

And yet it is a strange, very culturally specific idea that we are more truly ourselves when we are out of our bodies rather then when we are in them. Many people in other cultures think that they are their bodies — a very sensible proposition indeed given the available evidence. It takes analysis and comparison to understand this, even though the examples of the pattern occur regularly on Netflix. 

Valuing Life, Death, and Disability: Sorting People in the New York Times

[This post is a departure from my usual topics related to war, but since thinking about injured soldiers (as I do) means thinking about moral categories of embodied personhood, I hope the connection will be clear.]

I want to begin by applauding the New York Times and Danny Hakim for devoting considerable energies to their Abused and Used series exposing the deadly peril within NY state’s system of care for people with developmental disabilities. It’s not exactly a hot topic for an exposè.

But I was angry that in their contribution to the series this weekend, Hakim and co-author Russ Beuttner fed into ideas about people with disabilities that are part of the same deadly system their work has the potential to undermine.

Their focus on broken rules and poor regulation presents people with developmental disabilities as troublesome things to be managed and “dealt with.” Even their retelling of the story of James Taylor’s death conveys his life through burdens felt by others. Despite the candor and care of his mother and sister, visible in this accompanying video, Mr. Taylor’s life is primarily depicted as dead weight.

To be fair, the coverage reflects a double bind: these lives are not valued, so the series focuses on death and abuse in order to get attention. But in focusing on death and abuse, the series suggests it is deaths rather than lives that are worth attention, intervention, and resources.

So why do we care more about how some people die than how they live? As Mr. Taylor’s sister puts it: “these sorts of people are not valued in society”. This is true, but unsatisfying. We need also to ask what makes some people, but not others, people of “these sorts”.

The Used and Abused series confirms a common sense answer: These people are sorted by the biological facts of impairment; the neck that doesn’t support the head any better than a newborn, the brain that is ‘developmentally equivalent’ to a three-month-old’s. Those are facts of Mr. Taylor’s impairment due to cerebral palsy as described by Hakim and Buettner.

But this common sense is nonsense. Mr. Taylor was a 41-year-old man, not a baby. Comparing him to an infant is an (evocative, ubiquitous, offensive) analogy, not a statement of biological fact. And the strength of his neck does not explain why he was made to live in conditions that killed him.

I did fieldwork with injured U.S. soldiers rehabilitating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. As the NYT, Washington Post, and others have reported, soldiers often sustain brain injuries with major cognitive consequences. But we don’t evaluate injured soldiers the same way as Mr. Taylor—even when their brains are injured or literally missing.

Yet there may be no quantifiable difference between how someone with cerebral palsy can think and how a brain injured soldier can think. Nonetheless, we actively support the life of an injured soldier but merely try to prevent the death of people like Mr. Taylor.

The difference between these two “sorts of people” (or kinds of people, as Ian Hacking might put it) is one we make. It is rooted in morally weighted social facts, not biological ones. It is about the lives we value as a society and those we do not to. This is a basic human inequity for which we bear collective responsibility. Luckily, it is one all of us can work to change.

The Public Sphere of Occupy Wall Street

I keep returning to the public sphere as Habermas originally described it as I think about progressive political movements of today: Occupy Wall Street and its global dimensions, Anonymous and its more theatrical and political wing LulzSec, and progressive and independent cable television news network Current. Internet activism, television news punditry, and street-based social movements each work together implicitly or explicitly to constitute a larger public sphere. As scholars we need to resist the temptation of excluding one form of resistance as being inconsequential to social justice or to analysis and instead see all three as working together in a media ecology.

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Dragon Boat Festival

Training for the Dragon Boat Races

Here in Taiwan it’s time for the annual Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié 端午節), which also happens to be a school holiday. The traditional story of this festival is well summarized by Wikipedia:

The best-known traditional story holds that the festival commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan (Chinese: 屈原) (c. 340 BCE – 278 BCE) of the ancient state of Chu, in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance. Qu Yuan was accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, for which he is now remembered. Twenty-eight years later, Qin conquered the capital of Chu. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

It is said that the local people, who admired him, threw lumps of rice into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi [a kind of glutinous rice snack eaten at this time]. The local people were also said to have paddled out on boats, either to scare the fish away or to retrieve his body. This is said to be the origin of dragon boat racing.

This is the version of the story which most Taiwanese learn in school, but the truth is much more interesting. Continue reading

Children as Animals in American Culture

Regular readers of my twitter stream probably know that I am the father of twin boys who are now crawling all over me and everything I own. I don’t generally blog about my family since I feel it is their right to leave their own data trail on the Internet, but I wanted to make an exception in this case and talk a little about how Americans dress their infants. Like many couples, my wife and I have purchased practically none of the clothing out children wear. Instead, we’ve been relying on hand-me-downs and gifts from family and friends — a pretty typical situation when kids are at an age when they outgrow clothes every couple of weeks, and families with older kids are desperate to get rid of all the stuff they accumulated when their kids were small. As a result of this, I’ve had the unusual experience of seeing what people have decided my children should wear (or, in the case of hand-me-downs, what they thought their children should wear).

I’m sure the sorts of things we’ve been given are marked by my demographics: educated, white, above average income, politically on the left, and so forth. So it’s not surprising to me that no one has yet given the kids a “gimme my shotgun” onesie or a “can’t wait to treat women as objects” shirt. Nevetheless, I still think some of the trends I see are generalizable for a lot of the country.

For instance: Why are kids so crazy about dinosaurs? Answer: because we begin covering our children’s bodies with them before their eyes can focus properly. I can’t count the number of items we’ve received with prints of animals and dinosaurs on them. Typically these are brightly colored and in graphic, even extremely abstracted form. I personally like the look. As a kid who grew up in the halcyon days before we knew dinosaurs had feathers, I sort of wish that it was acceptable for me to show up to class wearing a white blazer with red and purple happy/cute velociraptor faces all over it. Alas, apparently that is hors d’categorie for adults.

It might seem shocking that we so closely associate our children with carnivores, given our tendency to imagine children as innocent and non-predatory. The happiness of the animals seems to be essential here — the more carnivorous they are the more they are portrayed as harmless and friendly. It might also be that the presence of these dangerous animals near infant bodies is meant to have an apotropaic function — as does the frontlets full of spiders and scorpions that chinese children wear — but I really don’t think that is what is going on in this case.

This identification of infant and wild animal can be seen even more clearly in clothing where the child is literally dressed in animal costume. In the case of infants, reptillian identification seems to be key: I’ve seen hoods with ridges down the back, and we’ve also received green socks with three clawed toes, designed to make it appear as if my children had reptilian feet. The impulse seems similar to the trend (hopefully now extinct?) of hipster women wearing hoods and hats with small animal ears protruding from them: a riff on the ambiguous cat-as-cute cat-as-dangerous/agentive trope which seems never to get old in American culture. Much more common than dressing the children as if they were animals is putting animals body parts over their body parts, but in a non-homologous way. For instance, pajamas where the childrens feet are covered with smiling monkey heads (non-human primates are also a big theme in children’s clothing). In one remarkable piece we were given, the seat of a pair of pajamas has a large monkey face on its seat, giving the impression that my child’s GI tract terminates in the head of a large primate. Personally, I found this a little weird, but I think I do have a basic understanding of why people think it is cute to put non-matching monkey parts on baby parts — a sort of Bakhtinian carnivalesque aesthetic at work here, some sense that the mismatch of body parts is cute. but honestly, my grasp on this one is a little tenuous.

I think a major reason that Americans think that ‘culture is something other people have’ is because we do not look hard enough at our own culture. Many people see Americans — and perhaps all humans — as rational actors seeking to maximize their wealth/utility. But really — how many acultural rational actors choose to disguise their infants as giraffes? Because let me tell you something: that is something Americans love to do. You only have to quint a little, shift your perspective a bit, and you can see both that there is a cultural logic to much of our lives and that this logic is, if you stop to think about it for a second, pretty unusual. There is nothing natural and inevitable ‘in human nature’ that makes people put monkey heads on baby behinds. One of the great parts of being an anthropologist is the way an awareness of cultural logics enriches your everyday life — even if one of the downsides is explaining to people why you are so preoccupied with the fact that they just gave your child a pair of alligator socks.

Anthro Poets

The dust storm kicked up over the dropping of the word “science” from the introduction to an internal long-range planning document reminded us that there are still a lot of anthropologists who still call themselves scientists. But how many anthropologists still call themselves “poets”? Rereading Recapturing Anthropology I came across a reference to this Pat Caplan article where she says

it is perhaps not insignificant that quite a number of American anthropologists are poets.

Is that still true? I asked on Twitter and was told that the Society for Humanistic Anthropology has poetry readings at the AAA (or at least used to) and that they still publish poems in their journal. So at least there are still some poets in anthropology, but were they a much bigger presence in the eighties than they are now?

Perhaps we need to write poetry into the long-range plan?

Why Thin Is Still In

Here is a guest blog by Ashley Mears, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University:

Why Thin is Still In

In her new documentary, Picture Me, Columbia University student Sara Ziff chronicles her 4-year rise and exit through the fashion modeling industry, zooming her personal camcorder onto supposedly systemic abuses—sexual, economic, and emotional—suffered by fashion models.  Among the many complaints launched in the film is an aesthetic that prizes uniformly young, white, and extremely thin bodies measuring 34-24-34” (bust-waist-hips) and at least 5’10” in height.  It’s an aesthetic that many of the models themselves have a tough time embodying, pushing some into drastic diets of juice-soaked cotton balls, cocaine use, and bulimia—in my own interviews with models I discovered similar, but not very common, practices of Adderall and laxative abuse.  It’s also an aesthetic that has weathered a tough media storm of criticism, set off in 2005 with the anorexia-related deaths of several Latin American models, and which culminated in the 2006 ban of models in Madrid Fashion Week with excessively low Body Mass Indexes (BMI).  And yet, as a cursory glance at the Spring 2011 catwalks will reveal, thin is still in.  In fact, bodies remain as gaunt, young, and pale as they did five years ago, and it’s entirely likely that in another five years, despite whatever dust Picture Me manages to kick up, models will look more or less the same as they do now. Continue reading