Tag Archives: Culture Notes

Foreign Languages in Film

I wanted to share a link to this great video slide show over at Slate about how Hollywood represents foreign languages in film.

How to represent foreign speech? Many filmmakers are content to shoot against a painted backdrop, toss in a few bonjours, and call it France, while others go to great lengths to have characters look and speak as authentically as possible. There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s a tricky business—directors must balance the expectations of realism with ease of viewing. They want dialogue to be convincing, but they don’t want to alienate their audiences with accents or subtitles that aren’t essential to the story.

And if you enjoyed that you will probably also enjoy the discussion about “fake translations” which took place on the linguistic anthropology listserv. Over at the SLA blog (scroll down) Alexandre Enkerli took the time to embed all the videos from that discussion in a single post.

He’s The Prettiest

A couple of years ago Strong asked if ‘The Wire’ wasn’t “Our Best Ethnographic Text on the U.S. Today?” Well David Simon and Eric Overmyer are at it again in Treme, which is full of nuanced detail about New Orleans music and society. I’m still catching up, but after watching five episodes of the show I feel that Treme is less ethnographic and more immersive than The Wire.

I find myself constantly wanting to know more about the culture and musical traditions of the city where the AAA will be holding it’s annual meeting this November. Without a policeman character to stand in for us as outsiders, the show instead plunges us directly into the middle of an ongoing story. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of hand holding in the writing – just that the anthropologist in me finds myself turning to Google much more often. For instance the word “lagniappe” is casually mentioned in one episode in a way that implies the meaning without giving much sense of the import or the origins. Fortunately, friends on Facebook and Twitter have forwarded some useful links, like the NOLA.org explainers for the cultural references in each episode.

Of particular interest was this article about the history of Mardi Gras “Indian” suiting (you can skip the introduction):

Clearly, the historical background suggests that the idea of “masking Indian” is over two hundred years old. Rather than an anomaly, the Mardi Gras Indians are in fact simply a manifestation of a much broader and older cultural trend than is often supposed. Rather than unique to New Orleans, Mardi Gras Indians are better understood as representative of the historic merging of African and Native peoples–a merger which happened throughout the so-called “new world” both because of as well as in spite of African enslavement and Native genocide.

Know of other useful resources for fans of Treme? Share them in the comments!

(Thanks to Roy Berman and Matthew Bradley for the links!)

UPDATE: Two great blogs: Sound of Treme, mentioned by Tyler in the comments, and the Treme archives of NPR’s A Blog Supreme, mentioned by Loomnie on twitter.


I keep the ads running on my Twitter client even though I have license — every so often something jumps out at me. Typically it’s software for optimizing the research experience, but this time it is Manpacks.

The idea behind Manpacks — which appears to not be a joke — is simple: you sign up for their subscription service, and every three months they will send you fresh tshirts, socks, and underwear. The site describes itself as ‘girlfriend approved’ and touts its service as ‘more efficient’ than shopping for clothes, and ‘easier’ because you ‘don’t have to think about it’. I am fascinated by what this says about contemporary masculinity in the US.

What does it mean that a business believes that men are willing to pay to have someone clothe them, and that they are unable or unwilling to decide for themselves that their underwear, socks, and tshirts are too dirty to continue to wear?  To a certain extent the site reflects a sort of passive consumerism in American culture that critics of consumerism have rallied against for decades — the penetration of very basic personal and household reproduction by the market, the obsession with convenience, and so forth.

But the site is clearly also about masculinity — the founders “believe in working with human nature, rather than fighting against it. Encouraging men to more regularly shop for underwear is not the answer.” Despite their claims that the site fosters ‘self reliance’ (by not having to wait to receive socks as gifts) and that men are ‘fully capable’ of buying underwear, but that they do not because it is a low priority, I find the overall message here one that men have trouble keeping track of their cleanliness or appearance.

On the one hand, such an idea is about masculine power and privilege: effortless comfort, not having to deal with the burdens of everyday life, the idea that you are entitled to (or should be able to purchase) a solution to all of the mundane problems in life so you can get on with the real business of living. But too often in contemporary American culture masculine privilege has flipped over into infantilization as men come to see themselves as incapable of even the most basic tasks, reliant on mothers, girlfriends, and of course the market to provide for their needs.

I see Manpacks as part of this broader trend in American society — one that resonates for me particularly as a teacher. It is now widely accepted that men struggle more and more in school, caught between learned helplessness on the one hand and peer pressure to appear effortlessly successful (when, that is, academic success is considered a good thing at all) and women have outpaced men in education and earning (although we still have a long way to go before full gender equity is achieved).

As a professor living in Honolulu who only distantly remember what ‘socks’ are, I imagine myself to be in a different demographic than twenty-somethings who expect a free ride out of life and tons of sex with scantily-clad women who love their choice of light beer. Am I wrong to find something sinister and enfeebling about Manpacks, or did they just catch me checking my Twitter feed at the wrong moment?

What is happening to the obsession with culture?

In our previous post, we suggested that, in “the development field,” culture talk may already look different from the time we wrote Seeing Culture Everywhere, and that the kind of para-ethnographic approach we argue for is gaining ground. What about the rest of the areas of public and corporate policy we cover in the book?

Huntingtonianism still rules in IR
In international relations, there is little evidence of cultural determinism becoming less popular at the level of explanations, although with the shifts in U.S. foreign policy rhetoric and the fatigue that has set in regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, the emphasis is more on solving day-to-day issues. In China, the local version of “Asian values,” centred on Confucianism, is doing better than ever and is increasingly infused into writings on foreign policy, although it is curiously combined with universalistic claims that suggest a new world system usually signified with the word tianxia, “all under heaven,” understood to mean a kind of non-Westphalian system vaguely reminiscent of tributary relations. (More on this in a forthcoming post.) Ethnic explanations of the “ancient hatreds” kind also appear to remain the most popular in armed internal conflicts.

From multiculturalism to interconfessionalism
The trends we describe in the way most Western states — including Western Europe and Australia — manage diversity continue, too. There remains a tension between the ongoing and increasingly stringent attempts to wrench rights and obligations away from previously designated ethnic “communities” and drag them back onto individuals through all kinds of “integration courses,” citizenship exams and bans on headscarves or arranged marriages, on the one hand, and the promotion of “interfaith dialogue,” with officially recognized religious leaders, on the other. Many of the problematic aspects of multiculturalist policies are now resurfacing in the form of interconfessionalist policies. We are looking forward to the findings of Thijl Sunier, Pál’s colleague, who is beginning a multi-country ethnography of Muslim organizational leadership.

Nor does the proliferation of “intercultural communication” trainings show any signs of abating, and Geert Hofstede’s “cultural dimensions” still rule the seas. We must confess that IC is an area that we particularly enjoyed lampooning; it was a pleasure, for instance, to quote from Brendan McSweeney’s brilliant piece in which he scrutinizes Hofstede’s assertion that Freud’s theories had to do with Austrian culture’s “combination of a very low power distance with a fairly high uncertainty avoidance,” which means that “there is no powerful superior who takes away one’s uncertainties.” McSweeney points out that Adolf Hitler and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, both Austrians of Freud’s generation, were rather keen on submitting to powerful superiors, although in different ways.

The Rat and the Rabbit
And finally, the battle for the group ownership of “native culture” continues. The inclusion of two bronze heads looted from the Summer Palace in Peking in last year’s auction of the Yves Saint Laurent – Pierre Berge collection triggered both official and popular protests in China, which had earlier been relatively subdued about claiming artifacts back from foreign museums. Later in the year, a Chinese archaeologist sponsored by a liquor company organised a high-profile tour of Western museums to take stock of art looted from the Summer Palace. On another front, the New York Times recently (23-24 January) reported that a performance by world ice dance champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin at the European Championships that employed Australian Aborigine motives in outfits and music was condemned by the New South Wales Aboriginal Council as another instance of “stealing Aboriginal culture.”

From culture to class, wealth and work?
All that said, we do have the impression, that the world’s mind has been taken off culture to some extent. The perceived (and perhaps real) crisis of “neoliberal” economics means a renewed attention to class, wealth, and work as generators of conflict and common interest. This attention is not always well-conceived and can be downright sinister; it can also resurrect earlier generalizations about group culture, this time linked to money. But it does perhaps generate a welcome opportunity for micro-level studies of powerful institutions.



I recently had a chance to see the movie Avatar in glorious IMAX 3D, which is the only way I would recommend anyone see the film. It is certainly not a film one sees for the writing, or the characters, or the story telling. It is a spectacular display of visual pyrotechnics, and I should probably leave it at that. However, the film is like a giant anthropological piñata and after two days of sitting on my hands I can’t hold off any more.

[I don’t think I mention anything in this post which you couldn’t gleen from the trailer, but I’ve posted everything after the jump to help those particularly worried about accidentally encountering spoilers.]

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The Treasure Hunter

As far as I can recall there have been three successful “tomb raider” film franchises: Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, and the Mummy series. Now two Taiwanese stars are attempting to make the first Asian blockbuster on the theme: The Treasure Hunter 刺陵 [Official homepage, in Chinese]. Costing about US$12 million, “the action-packed film tells the adventure of Qiao Fei (Jay Chou), who strives to protect a hidden treasure with the help of Lan Ting (Lin Chi-Ling).” Should be out just in time for the New Year.

So say we all…

This post is about the TV series Battlestar Galactica and contains SPOILERS. Don’t read it if you haven’t seen the final episode and plan to watch it at some point in the future. Despite the complaints I have about the very ending, it was an enjoyable and thought provoking show and I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t already done so.
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“those without agency have sentimentality and vice versa”

There is a vivid article in this month’s Technology Review by the unlikely contributor Jonathan Franzen, called “I just called to say I love you“. It starts out as a screed against the destruction of public life by mobile phone conversations, and is made readable only by his painful awareness of just how hard it is to conduct a screed against the destruction of public life without sounding like a nag, an old fogey or a conservative technophobe. It then veers into a description of the thing Franzen hates most about this destructive capacity—the repeated and thoughtlessly uttered “I love you” which it is now impossible not to hear constantly ejaculated by those near you, talking to their putatively loved ones in tones too shrill and hectoring to ignore. Then the article gets worse—or better, depending on your reading—by locating part of the transition in 9/11 and the ways in which televised images create a form of collective trauma that is somehow (i didn’t quite get this) related to the cell phone and the nature of public declarations of love. Finally, Franzen turns to his own father and mother and their differing declarations of love (in person by his mother, and in writing by his father), which connects in the end to the danger represented by the cell phone. Continue reading

A Taiwanese View of the World

Since we are talking about how stereotypes explain “more about the people making the statements than the people described in them” I thought it worthwhile to take some time in order to translate this map which has been floating around the Taiwanese internets.

I have no idea who the original author is, but I can promise you that my Taiwanese colleagues find this map to be both accurate and hilarious (“its funny because its so true”). It purports to show what anthropologists wish to study: how Taiwanese view the world.

Taiwanese Map of the World

I’ve been informed that some of my translations lack the local nuance which makes this map so funny. For instance, where I wrote “blonde babes” one friend implied that I should have written something more like “blonde hos” and the word I translated as Aborigine is far less polite, etc. In some cases I’ve included additional notes on the map which you will only be able to read at full resolution.

UPDATE: Here are some related maps.

UPDATE: Another translation.

‘Your average Hindu temple is more fabulous than the Gay Bombay New Year’s Party’

This considered and erudite anthropological observation was a sentence I found myself muttering in conversation on the eve of my departure from Mumbai. I was visiting India with relatives and had traveled around Karnataka for a few weeks before flying to Mumbai (which the local folks I was staying with persist in calling Bombay) for New Year’s festivities. Traveling in a place as culturally rich as India is a thrilling and humbling experience for the anthropologist. On the one hand, there are fascinating things going on everywhere all the time. In Coorg, our van was stopped by a tribal group that was blocking the road in protest of state restrictions on their access to the forest they claim as theirs. And we celebrated Christmas at Bababudangiri, the site of a shrine controlled by Muslims and long hosting syncretic worship, but in recent years subject to antisyncretic Hindu agitation. Indeed, a dispute over a particular Hindu observation called Datta Jayanti had occurred just two days before our arrival there — but we added a further tradition to the mix by visiting the place on Christmas day itself! So if there is lots to think about, there are also lots of reminders of what one doesn’t know. This is true of life in general, I suppose, for those of us who fancy ourselves experts — but I feel it is especially true when anthropologists find themselves as tourists. Yet, since so much tourist activity in the contemporary world is a sort of ersatz ethnography (people go to places to experience exotic others and to learn about them), the expert compulsion to ‘know more’ than your average tourist perhaps reveals a narcissistic impulse generated by that not-so-small difference between ‘the tourist’ and ‘the ethnographer.’ In India, the sheer magnitude of what you don’t know basically requires that you let go of your own pretensions.

Anyway, a highlight of our trip was the Gay Bombay New Year’s party. We went with a Mumbaikar friend of ours. As in many places, gay identity is barely present in Bombay — the gay scene is super underground. Many gay men in Bombay lead completely closeted double lives. Gay Bombay is introducing and promoting a Western-style ‘gay’ identity in a place whose norms and forms of sexual identity conform to a completely different sort of sensibility, and in a place where gay men are not infrequently targeted for harassment, violence, or blackmail. There’s a lot of anthropological work on this dynamic in different parts of the world — work on ways in which ‘homosexuality’ as an identity category is being taken up and refigured cross-culturally, often in politically-fraught contexts. One thing that struck me, however, was the irony that in the context of Bombay, and perhaps in the context of India more generally, Western-style gayness appears tepid by comparison to styles of comportment and self-presentation apparent on an everyday basis on the street already. Indian street culture glitters with golden bangles, it glows with magenta or chartreuse or electric blue saris. Young men in Bombay wear spiffy tailored shirts and tight polyester pants and they show no compunction about displaying their warm feeling for each other in physical embrace. It probably sounds cliché, but there is an intense (baroque, over-wrought, hyperbolic) fabulousness to Indian aesthetic sensibilities, including those often on display at Hindu shrines, garlanded as they often are with marigolds and tinsel.

By comparison then, the pink balloons that comprised the sum total of the decorations at our New Year’s party seemed kinda, um, unfabulous. This is not at all to criticize the organizers who are obviously engaged in important work promoting tolerance and providing a forum for folks who find it very meaningful. I am just noting that although gays often pride ourselves on the rainbow-colored fabulousness of our culture, in fact ‘global gayness’ may sometimes end up encouraging men to lose some local color as they pursue freedoms associated with a new-fangled identity.

This has often bugged me about a certain strand of gay aesthetics. The last time I had this impression was in New Orleans for one of the many AAA meetings held there. You knew you had reached the gay end of the street when the jazz stopped and the monotonous thud of some dance remix could be heard.

Lenin in the Basement

How far in time and across space do the shadows of the Cold War reach? Masco persuasively argues that Cold War logics live with us today, not least in the way that US culture continues to constitute itself through fantasies of its own demise. Americans are weirdly obsessed with their own annihilation, whether at the hands of communist revolutionaries or Islamic radicals. But Estonia, a country of 1.3 million, actually was invaded by the Soviets. The country, an hour and half by boat from Helsinki, continues to confront — or bury — that memory. What Masco argues for the US, recent events in Estonia have perhaps also revealed: repression doesn’t work very well.

lenin2.jpgEstonia’s ‘Museum of Occupations‘ sits just outside Tallinn’s famous old town. It is a modern structure (opened in 2003); you enter through a courtyard cleverly enclosed beneath a glass-sheathed reading room and lecture hall. I was excited to visit the Museum a few weeks ago. Estonia had made international headlines for moving a memorial to Soviet soldiers in WWII (soldiers who expelled the Nazi occupiers of Estonia) from central Tallinn to a less visible cemetery outside the city. Riots erupted across the country for reasons I could not fully grasp at the time. When I visited in May I could still see broken glass in many storefronts. I hoped that the Museum would provide context for understanding the rioting.

In fact, throughout Tallinn, there are very few signs of the former Soviet Union. There is one Soviet era theater in the Old Town. But other than that one building, you might never know that Estonia had been a part of the Soviet Union for 50 years. In order to find the Soviet presence, you have to look underground — literally. Continue reading

What F(l)ags Engender

bush.jpgWould it be unfair to say that this image basically sums up the content of mainstream U.S. politics and culture since “9/11”? Where does this picture fit amidst arguments about the clash of civilizations, the politics of oil, the legality of torture, secularism, multiculturalism, or the exercise of sovereign power? Does the image of George W. Bush as a roided-out Uncle Sam basically iconize the post-millenial U.S. zeitgeist?

I have felt since 9/11 that the U.S. is best understood through the psychology manifested in this image, a psychology dominated by the fragile and wounded ego of a national subject understood as ‘white’ and ‘male.’ I see U.S. politics as dominated by the mentality of the grade school playground, where argument takes the form of “I know you are but what am I?” and the insecure bully goes around whopping on whimps because he is afraid that no one loves him. I see U.S. culture in the last several years as fundamentally authoritarian. It doesn’t take a professor of anthropology to argue that “9/11” has catalyzed a backlash against all that ails the modern white male ego. U.S. culture appears fundamentally motivated by a need to build up and defend the poor, damaged male self after decades of onslaught by the feminists and the gays, the intellectuals, the Europeans, the immigrants, whatever. Though the wound that motivated much of the defensive political posturing and putsches of the last several years resulted from the spectacular humiliation of “9/11,” the abject failure of the Iraq war as a demonstration of U.S. prowess has only deepened the cut. The prospects are frightening.

Countless moments in recent memory have contributed to my gut feeling that the whole U.S. thing can best be explained as a Tough Guy response to the sucker punch on 9/11, but none to me revealed the basic psychology underlying U.S. political ideology better than when Ann Coulter called U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards a fag. Continue reading

Eurovision is A Campy Festival of the National-Cultural


This is a little late, I realize, especially given the greatly accelerated lifecycle of the ‘topical’ in these days of the internets and scroll-down news. Yet, two weeks ago at an academic conference in Turku, a little analysis was offered of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in early May (I summarize below the jump). So Eurovision’s topicality endures a bit, and besides, what’s not to love about it? I can’t think of any comparable global institution: a campy take on the idea of the nation–and a campy take that people evidently really care about! Indeed, one that they get angry about sometimes. There is also the Olympics of course, but although Olympic pomp and circumstance is often theatrical, I don’t think it could be described as camp (with the possible exception of Lionel Richie’s performance at the Closing Ceremonies of the 1984 L.A. Olympics or maybe Björk in Athens — she tucks ‘the world’ under her undulating dress).

Anyway, Helsinki hosted the contest this year because Finnish band Lordi, much to the shock of Finns everywhere, actually won the contest last year. (I was still in San Francisco back when Finland won, and was in fact having lunch with a Finnish family when the kids suddenly received excited phone calls from home announcing that Finland was victorious. We all jumped up and down. With characteristic self-deprecation, Finns had often joked that Finland would only win the contest after hell freezes over, having long endured low placing finishes.) Finns had been nervous and a little embarrassed about their entry, an over-the-top monster-goth-rock band from Rovaniemi near the Arctic Circle (pictured on the right above; one of their songs is ‘Would You Love a Monsterman?‘). But judging from the visible commercial culture I see every day, the country ultimately rallied behind these monsters escaping a frozen underworld. Thus, joining in the High Goth spirit of things, I have tried to drink as much Lordi Lite Cola as possible since moving to Helsinki.

Readers of SM from outside Europe may be unaware, as I was, of some interesting aspects of the contest. Continue reading

Brief note: The travels of “Molotov Man”

Molotov man

If you’re interested in how images move and morph in a digitally linked world, check out a recent essay in Harper’s about “Molotov Man,” who was born in a photograph taken by Susan Meiselas in revolutionary Nicaragua in 1979. (Work by Meiselas can be seen in the website of the photo agency Magnum.) It was subsequently appropriated for artistic and political purposes in Nicaragua and beyond.

Molotov man is the subject of the Harper’s article “On the Rights of Molotov Man:
Appropriation and the Art of Context,” by Susan Meiselas and Joy Garnett, published in the February issue. It also figures in the multimedia record of an NYU conference, Comedies of Fair U$e,” held in April 2006. The conference attracted such fair-use heavyweights as James Boyle, Lawrence Lessig, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Jonathan Lethem.

Does anyone know of specific indigenous images that are this well-traveled?