Tag Archives: Popular Culture

Buffalaxing in Reverse in Taiwan

According to the Urban Dictonary “buffalaxing” is a term which comes from a YouTube user named Buffalax who is famous for writing fake English lyrics to foreign songs which (to an English speaker who doesn’t understand the original language) sound like they could be the actual lyrics to the song. You can find this kind of thing by searching YouTube for “buffalax” or for “misheard lyrics.” Some of these are funnier than others, and many are simply offensive. The reason I bring it up is that buffalaxing is very popular in Taiwan, and I wanted to share a new music video which has some fun with this meme. But first some context…

Let’s start with two of the more famous songs which have been given misheard Chinese lyrics. The first is “Golimar” from the Telugu movie “Donga“:

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The search for anthropology in public, part II

Whenever I go into a bookstore, I always check out the anthropology section (see part I here).  A curious habit, or custom, or something like that.  What can I say?  I have my routines.  I like to see what happens to be on the shelves and compare that to my own understandings of what contemporary anthropology is all about.  I imagine that this is some sort of litmus test that tells us something about the state of anthropology in the public sphere.  Maybe, maybe not.  More about that shortly.  So, the last time I did this informal empirical investigation, the results were similar to past experiences: not phenomenal.  The most “anthropological” books included:

  1. Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson
  2. The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

  3. 1491 by Charles Mann

  4. Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna

Bateson’s was the only book I saw that was written by an actual anthropologist.  How it is that only one anthropologist happens to be in the anthropology section is beyond me.  This was a particularly skewed sample, I’ll admit–usually there’s at least a Wade Davis, Margaret Mead, or even Sir James Frazier in the mix.  Not this time.  The rest of the section was incredibly eclectic, and included everything from books by Drew Pinsky to one by Maira Kalman (which does look pretty cool, though not what I would define as anthropology).  Some of this eclectic-ness had to be due to some restocking malfunctions, undoubtedly, but overall the section on anthropology was, as is often the case, a strange and somewhat askew reflection of the discipline.  Yes, that is an opinion.  And now, it’s time for some questions: Continue reading

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

Darwinian Literary Criticism

What if humanities scholars started doing evolutionary psychology? No, wait. Hear me out.

I had never heard of this before I read about it in a news focus piece in the May 6, 2011, issue of the journal Science, “Red in Tooth and Claw Among the Literati,” (Vol.332, p.654). Ordinarily this is something I’d be skeptical about. After all I jumped on the bandwagon bashing evo-psyche in the comments of Dustin’s recent post and I’ve blogged about the overblown promises of Culturenomics. But this so-called Darwinian literary criticism is kind of neat. In parts.

First a word about the news piece itself. The author, Sam Kean, comes across as overtly sympathetic to the cause of Darwinian literary criticism and seems to shares his subject’s – Joseph Carroll, the originator of this school of thought – dim view of contemporary literary scholarship. This unreflective, uncritical approach yields a rather dissatisfying article.

It seems this kind of thing is quite unpopular in some literary circles (shocking!), even getting panned in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry (ouch!). But our journalist takes this to mean that the man is some sort of hero and his brilliant idea is getting squashed by poststructural, postcolonial phonies. These “fashionable” theories, along with Freud and Marx, he writes, have all “dismissed the idea that evolutionary pressures have shaped human nature, attributing all human nature to culture instead.”

Anybody who thinks Marx dismisses Darwin needs to stop reading Wikipedia.
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Regarding Japan: On the risks and responsibilities of engagement

The day after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s northeast coast I received a well-intentioned facebook message from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in nearly a decade.  She was checking to see if I and those I care about in Japan were all right.   Although I responded graciously and positively, my own reluctance to participate in the twittering drama filled me with suspicion.  By writing to me, was she trying to claim a little piece of the action, a connection to the disaster?  Would she secretly prefer that I were directly affected so that she could share in the piquant pang of aftershock without having to suffer its enduring losses?

About a week later, as the scale of suffering in Japan became clearer, I became less concerned with everybody else’s questionable investments in the pain of others and more suspicious of my own hesitancy to engage emotionally.

Although I frowned and cried as solicited upon seeing the unavoidable photos of people staggering through muddy ruins, I wasn’t sure how to feel the rest of the time.  Brian Massumi’s claim that

“power is no longer fundamentally normative, like it was in its disciplinary forms—it’s affective”

suggests that stories and images circulate and infiltrate strategically. Even though, as de Certeau reminds us, readers aren’t fools and we employ tactics with which to play and navigate the web of discourse, we’re still stuck inside of it—and it inside of us.  Our critique of media, savvy avoidance of manipulation, and resistance to being told how to feel are themselves already the threads of discourses that have been woven into us.

Part of me wants to believe that some basic feeling for the suffering of others arises before all of this, that there’s a relational web prior and in excess to the discursive one—and that it’s woven more tightly.

But if the mass mediated means through which we gain access to others is always already shaping how we feel for those others, how can we feel without capitulating to the powers that traffic in affect? In the case of catastrophes, which seem to (fairly regularly) punctuate the passage of ordinary life with significance, how do we resist the meaning-making machines while still engaging meaningfully?
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Codename: Geronimo

Following quick on the heels of the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s demise at the hands of U.S. Special Forces Special Operations personnel, the public has learned more about the top secret operation to find this elusive enemy. One of the most revealing bits of trivia has been that Bin Laden was assigned the code name “Geronimo” by the operation tasked with capturing and killing him. This raises the question, what does a nineteenth century Apache leader have to do with twenty first century Saudi millionaire? Perhaps nothing when viewed from an academic standpoint, it seems more like a non sequitur. But when read as expression of an underlying ideology, one that has legitimated American military action for centuries, the answer is: quite a lot, actually.

In his seminal work Playing Indian, Philip Deloria describes the history of white performance in Indian disguise, exploring the role of the Indian in the American national imaginary. Mainstream American perceptions of Indians are defined by a dialectic of repulsion and desire. The Indian, he writes, is at once “Us” and “Not-Us.”

In this ambivalent relationship, Indians as savages serve as “oppositional figures against whom one might imagine a civilized national Self” (Deloria 1998:3). Yet just as frequently Indians were trotted out as symbols of freedom for they were in possession of “barbarian virtues,” to borrow a phrase from Matthew Frye Jacobson, that deserved to be emulated especially as an antidote to the supposed ills of modernity and city life with its changing gender norms.

This was a uniquely American nationalism: one that saw itself as civilized, yet not European, native born of a society rooted in ancient history and of the natural American landscape. This history shows that Indian play has always “[clung] tightly to the contours of power” (Deloria 1998:7) within U.S. national subjectivity. Indian play, Deloria argues, came to serve a function in the ongoing search for an authentic and meaningful social identity in the face of modernity’s uncertainties. This tradition of playing Indian in the U.S. has wrought a slue of stereotypes in U.S. popular culture including: the Indian as environmentalist, spiritual messenger or guide, team mascot, filmic protagonist, and tourist destination.

Turning now from Deloria’s critical analysis of practices American cultural and literary expression, we can see how Indian play has served a prominent role in helping Americans make sense of war. As a polysemous and highly flexible trope of the U.S. military, Indian imagery in representations of American military conflict constitutes a veritable genre unto itself. Broadly speaking it boils down to two general types that mirror Deloria’s dialectic of desire and repulsion: the Indian as martial ally and the Indian as worthy opponent.

To wit – the Indian is Us and Not-Us:
Osama Bin Laden, “Geronimo”

Geronimo, an Apache

An Apache

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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.

Kapah (Young Men): Alternative Cultural Activism in Taiwan

This post is an occasional contribution by Futuru C.L. Tsai. Futuru recently got his Ph.D. in July 2010 from the Institute of Anthropology at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. His dissertation is entitled Playing Modernity: Play as a Path Shuttling across Space and Time of A’tolan Amis in Taiwan. He was a training manager in a semiconductor corporation originally but quit to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology. Futuru is also an ethnographic filmmaker and writer, who has produced three ethnographic films including Amis Hip Hop (45 min, 2005), From New Guinea to Taipei (83 min, 2009), and The New Flood (51 min, 2010), and a book: The Anthropologist Germinating from the Rock Piles (Shiduei zhong faya de renleixuei jia) (Taipei: Yushanshe, 2009).

Kapah (Young Men) /Lyrics & Music: Suming

Are there any young men who can sing out there? Are there any men who can dance? Are there any men who are good in school? Are there any men who are good at making money? Are there any men who are good at planting crops? Are there any men who are good at gathering? Are there any men who are good at spearing fish? Are there any men who are good at cooking? Are there any fun men out there? Are there any strong men? Are there any hard workers? Are there any men that work together? Yes, there are the young men from A’tolan!

A brand new music album with complete Amis lyrics by the Amis artist, Suming, was released in May 2010. It is not the first Amis music album but is the first one attempting to crossover into popular music market in Taiwan, combining indigenous melodies such as Amis polyphony and flutes together with techno-trance, hip-hop, and Taiwanese folk music. Among these songs, “Kapah,” which means “young men” in the Amis language, is the theme song. Lungnan Isak Fangas, a documentary filmmaker, who is also an Amis, made two music videos for this album, one of them is Kapah. Both the song and the music video not only represent aspects of local A’tolan Amis culture but also attempt to make this culture appealing to Taiwanese society at large.

There are currently 14 indigenous ethnic groups (referred to as “Aborigines”) officially recognized by the Taiwan government. The Amis is the largest of these austronesian speaking ethnic groups in Taiwan. There are two conspicuous characters of Amis society and culture relevant to understanding this video: One is that it is widely considered a matriarchal society, although its status as such is still under debate. Nonetheless, the image of the mother holds a central place in Amis society. The other one is the age-grade system with its rigid regulations. Age sets are organized around males who have passed the coming of age rites in the village within a given time period. Each age set (kapot) will include men born within a few years of each other. It is the main political unit, handling the affairs of both outsiders and insiders.

The song Kapah differs from earlier indigenous music in its depiction of indigenous modernity. Continue reading

The Essentials of the Facebook Ring

Two Facebook partners have to friend one another, and exchange “likes” and links incidentally; they behave as friends, and have a number of mutual duties and obligations, which vary with the distance between their real life homes and with their reciprocal status. An average user has a few friends nearby, as a rule his co-workers, or his family, and with these contacts he is on very friendly terms. The Facebook friendship is one of the special bonds which unite two people into one of the standing relations of mutual exchange of social reputation which is so characteristic of these digital natives. Again, the average person will have one or two celebrities in his network with whom they are “friends. In such a case they would be expected to serve them in various ways, such as becoming a “fan” and to share links to any new media these celebrities might post to their fan pages.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to the original text.

Oscar Caliber: Soldiers in Avatar and The Hurt Locker

(This occasional contribution comes from the team of Ken MacLeish and Zoė H. Wool. Ken is a doctoral candidate in anthropology and the Program in Folklore, Public Culture and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He conducted 12 months of intensive fieldwork with soldiers and military families at and around the U.S. Army’s Ft. Hood in Killeen, TX. His dissertation explores the impacts of war and military institutions in everyday life via the concepts of attachment, vulnerability and exchange. Zoe is a doctoral candidate in socio-cultural and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation is titled Emergent Ordinaries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center: An ethnography of extra/ordinary encounter. It focuses on the dialectic of the ordinary and extraordinary in the lives of soldiers who are marked by violence. )

You might have noticed the strong militarized thread running through this year’s list of Oscar nominated films. A not necessarily exhaustive list includes: The Hurt Locker, Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, District 9, The Most Dangerous Man in America, Burma VJ, and Star Trek.

As a couple of anthropologists who study American soldiers, we’ve been struck by the much-ballyhoed showdown between Avatar and The Hurt Locker, particularly because there’s been relatively little said about the fact that the protagonists of both films are soldiers (Avatar’s Jake Sully is of course a marine of some fictitious and unspecified variety, but we’re going to take a leap and dispense with the service jargon).

After several years of largely unwatched and un-lauded contemporary American war films (Lions for Lambs, In The Valley of Ellah, Stop Loss, Dear John, Redacted, The Kingdom), it is worth taking a moment to ponder the significance of fictionalized American soldiers being at the center of such dramatically different films at a moment when actual American soldiers and Marines have, until just recently, largely vanished from the headlines. Soldiers are a key figure and symbol mediating public assumptions about, and relationships to, war violence. We wondered what the competing images in Avatar and The Hurt Locker suggest about those assumptions and relationships.

The two films are a study in contrasts on a number of levels. Avatar is a $400 million blockbuster that shattered director James Cameron’s own previous box office world record. The Hurt Locker had a budget of $16 million, and writer Mark Boals and director Katherine Bigelow self-produced it with funds from European backers because they were unsure if it would ever see a full theatrical release in the U.S.

Avatar was filmed mainly in front of green screens with its actors in motion-capture suits, a curious parallel to the film’s body-trading premise. Its incandescent alien flora and fauna serve as the backdrop for a moralizing tale drenched in liberal sentiment. The Hurt Locker was filmed on location in Amman, Jordan, less than 200 miles from the Iraqi border. Its palette is essentially sepia-tone, rounded out with blood and the black smoke of bomb detonations, and it’s an essentially plotless examination of war detached from political narrative.

James Cameron wrote the script for Avatar more than ten years ago, so its parallels with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—insurgent locals, resource exploitation driven by corporate interests, and well-meaning “anthropologists” trying to forestall bloodshed (can you say HTS?)—arguably say as much about the abiding features of counterinsurgency war in general as about the current wars in particular. Mark Boals’ Hurt Locker script is based on his time as an embedded reporter with a U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team in Iraq, and yet the film is less ‘about’ the Iraq War than it is about the pleasures and pathologies of making and being exposed to violence.

Above all, the films depict radically different relationships between their protagonists, the violence they make and endure, and the greater logic of that violence. Avatar is a redemptive tale. In Jake Sully, the film gives us a curious blend of wronged veteran and cynical mercenary who transforms into pure-hearted revolutionary. The details of Jake’s tragic biography, his exceptional biometrics, and his mix of defeated nihilism and warrior’s code contextualize his decision first to do some things that are really bad (like helping to decimate a population and a planet to extract natural resources for profit) and then some that are really good (like coming to understand that this kind of exploitation should be stopped at all costs). The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, provides little context for its three EOD team protagonists beyond their dedication to, and enthusiasm for, their job. A few jumbled bits of background suggest that they are bound only tenuously to anyone or anything outside of the claustrophobic masculinity of military life. But this closed-off immediacy is a kind of ethical commentary in itself, as the film invites its audience to imagine the human-scale experience of a narratively overdetermined event—like war—that must be lived without the luxury of the kind of measured, meaningful and redemptive context that Avatar provides.

In Avatar, the combat violence is both the evidence and the means of evil deeds and the mechanism for righting wrongs. The humans fight to destroy and exploit, or even for the (clearly unwholesome) pleasure of killing. Cameron depicts the film’s mercenary grunts with an abundance of quasi-realistic contemporary detail—from their uniforms and hairstyles to their technical jargon and slang—but he also shows them as vulgar, sadistic, abelist, and racist, the dark side to Jake’s human vulnerability and empathy and his soldierly discipline and determination. For the Na’vi, on the other hand, violence against living things is imbued with righteousness and spiritual and existential significance. In both its thematic connotations and in its action, the film’s violence is utterly transparent. Good violence and bad violence are clearly meant to be distinguishable. And Sully’s perhaps accidental quotation of an Airborne slogan “death from above” to describe Na’vi aerial hunting suggests that good violence can safely blend militaristic and mystical attitudes. The bad guys strike first and leave destruction where there was peace and plenty. The ballet of arrows and rockets and soaring beasts and hovering aircraft that articulate and allegorize just and unjust violences is presented in excruciatingly elaborate technical detail, making it clear exactly how each act of destruction contributes to the morally freighted conflict. Violence always has a meaning and a message, its ramifications in the material world mapping point for point onto a moral one.

If Avatar is orderly and transparent, The Hurt Locker is unruly and opaque, both thematically and aesthetically, refusing the anchored of ethical certainty. The sense of devastation is generalized, and the temporality of before, during, and after doesn’t necessarily apply: violence happens and it’s happening now, arbitrarily bookended by the last days of these soldiers’ deployment. Even the seemingly orderly unfolding of the calendar—signposted throughout the film with periodic title cards showing number of days remaining—becomes disordered as the time of passing days is effaced by the racing seconds of a detonation device. Sergeant First Class James’ arrival in the unit at the beginning of the film finds an uncanny echo at its end when he arrives again. Time simultaneously loops back on itself and also counts down at the pace of a calendar and of a time bomb and of a rotation. The unfolding of time that can give violence a redemptive logic in Avatar is, in The Hurt Locker, shattered and fragmented.

It is this fragmentation, rather than any solid explanatory framework that characterizes the violence in The Hurt Locker. There are threats everywhere, but the only identifiable enemies are at a distance—seen through a scope from hundreds of meters away—or utterly absent—the bombmakers who leave their creations for the soldiers to find. When James and his fellow soldiers Sanborn and Eldridge return fire on a shooter they cannot see, the script, camerawork and editing keep the shooter obscured for several minutes—an eternity by action movie standards. When a bomb detonates on the ground next to an unsuspecting soldier, he literally disappears in a cloud of smoke. Just as scenes of violence are deliberately evacuated of all but a physical intelligibility, The Hurt Locker makes no direct reference to the larger political and strategic logic of the war. In contrast to Avatar’s sweeping scale and redemptive violence, The Hurt Locker’s visual and moral universe is one in which violence resolves little, but is its own dilemma and its own reward.

None of this even begins to touch on some of the other themes that cross these films: the gendering of violence; the place of capitalism and entrepreneurship; the competing modes of bodily discipline and decay; notions of “cultural difference”; or countless aspects of technical execution and visual style. Clearly the contrasts of these two films, and the soldiers in them are good to think with. Our thinking has left us with a few questions about these portrayals of soldiers and war violence and what they might mean.  We submit them here for your consideration:

  • Is there any way of squaring the fragmentary and contingent quality of violence in The Hurt Locker and the ethics of grand ideas displayed in Avatar? And in either case, what does this mean for how we think about soldiers who carry out violence?
  • What can we glean from both films’ portrayal of a deeply ambivalent relationship between the soldier and the military institution that he or she serves?
  • What is the relationship between the very bodily solder and other inanimate or semi-animate instruments of war? In what circumstances does the soldier’s bodilyness dispose him to be read as just a body, and in what circumstances does it round out his humanity and heroism by serving as a sign of his discipline and prowess?
  • Can soldiers ever also be seen as regular folks, and do they ever get to “be normal”? Or do they always have to choose between the chaos of war and a home that is (in one way or another) made strange?

UPDATE: Updated post to include Zoë H. Wool’s bio and byline.

Food Allergies and Modern Life

20 years ago, I knew hardly anyone with a food allergy. Shellfish and strawberries were the only foods I’d ever heard of someone being allergic to. Then, suddenly, airlines were replacing peanuts with pretzels because of food allergies, and food started being labeled “Processed in a facility that also processes tree nuts.” A few years later, I met someone who was allergic to wheat. Pretty soon, it seemed like everyone I knew was allergic to something – gluten, lactose, chocolate, and a gazillion other things.

How can we explain this epidemic of food allergies? The radical shift from hunting and gathering finally catching up with us? Radical advances in medical technology that allow us to identify conditions that went unnoticed a generation ago? A build-up of environmental toxins in common foods? Interaction of foods with strange new food-like products like high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors?

Or maybe we’re imagining the whole thing.

That’s the conclusion suggested by a recent study in the UK that found that only 2% of people who claimed to suffer from food allergies were actually allergic. The rest are suffering from something else, namely, the belief that they suffer from food allergies.

Now, I don’t know much about medicine and physiology, but I do know a thing or two about belief, and when millions of people believe something that isn’t empirically verifiable (1 in 5 Britons, according to the article above), we’ve got some ‘splaining to do.

Now, my first reaction is what I think many food allergy sufferers will share: that the study is flawed, not in its procedure, but in its very medical-ness. That is, there’s a strain of anti-modernism in the recent explosion of food allergy awareness that simply doesn’t trust the mainstream medical industry to  recognize and treat food allergies. So when you get a bunch of mainstream medical researchers to study the issue, it’s no surprise that they don’t find anything.

I doubt that’s true, but here’s the thing: the belief that it’s true is part and parcel of the food allergy… can I call it a “movement”? In their rejection of modern medical knowledge and modern food processing technologies, as well as their yearning for a more “natural” diet and a greater connection to their bodily functions, food allergy advocates (if not food allergy sufferers) certainly have at least some of the hallmarks of a social movement. And they’ve certainly created social change, as well – modern supermarket shelves are packed with (ironically) high-tech allergen-free foods: gluten-free beer, bread made of spelt, soy milk and ice cream, and so on.

But leave aside the political aspects of today’s food allergies; what intrigues me is the almost religious asceticism imposed by many food allergies. A vast number of foods are made containing wheat, for instance, so the wheat allergy sufferer is constrained to a diet that eliminates a great many common foods – much like a Jew during Passover, when most wheat-containing foods must be avoided as “leavened”.

The author of the Telegraph piece above notes the similarities between food allergies and food taboos, drawing on Mary Douglas’ understanding of the way boundaries create meaning and order:

[W]hat we eat not only defines us as people but also helps us to feel control and mastery over an otherwise chaotic and random world. She argued that by ordering foods into those we can consume and those that we can’t, we create meaning, and the boundaries provide order in our lives.

As a set of dietary restrictions, rather than a medical phenomenon, it seems reasonable to see food allergies – along with vegetarianism/veganism, the Slow Food movement, the “buy local” movement, and the $30 billion-plus diet market (in the US) – as an attempt to wrest back control over an aspect of our lives that we are increasingly and maybe irretrievable disconnected with. Few of us have any connection with the food cycle except as consumers at the end of a very long and complicated food production cycle. Food allergies allow us to assert control – on pain of death – over what we ingest, and demands an attentiveness – again, on pain of death – to what’s in the foods that we buy.

But this fussiness is part of a larger yearning for control altogether, which is where the anti-modernism comes in. Food has long been not only a means of forging and asserting cultural identity but of resisting the onslaught of a homogenizing, enervating modernity that threatens to dissolve not just cultural identities but individual identities. From the health spa/retreats of the Kellogg brothers and their peers (that gave us corn flakes and granola) to the popularity of Sweet-n-Low in the ‘50s and ‘60s to the communes of the hippie era to the herbal remedies of today, food has been seen as a way to “get back” to a more “natural” way of life – as opposed to the high-stress,  low-community, detached and distracted way of life that is modernity.

None of this is to suggest that there are not very real food allergies – it’s hard to argue with anaphylactic shock. Nor, more importantly, is it to say that the 98% of food allergy sufferers in the study with no medically detectable food allergies do not, in a very real way, suffer. The bodily manifestations of the most obviously social disorders can still drastically limit a person’s quality of life.

What it does suggest is that treatment of food allergies needs to go much further than antihistamines and food avoidance to encompass the cultural psychological. If control is a central issue – as it is already recognized to be in anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders, which strike bright, ambitious young women with overbearing parents hardest precisely because they are the least in control of their lives and the most aware of it – then a) developing non-food strategies for regaining control, and b) developing a realistic relationship with the demands and pressures of daily life are also important to individual adjustment.

On a social level, food allergies and other dietary restrictions join a range of other control-seeking phenomena – pop psychology, personal productivity, conspiracy theorism, and religious fundamentalism, all of which attempt to throw a lasso around the neck of our stampeding lives. As a critique of modernity, there’s nothing original here; Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life addressed similar concerns about the loss of autonomy in 1903, and Emile Durkheim addressed similar concerns a decade earlier, noting the anomie inherent in industrial/commercial society in The Division of Labor in Society.

But over a century of social critique has done little to alleviate the real suffering of real people. The question is, do we have the resources and will to take on these challenges at a social level today? Or are food allergies, in fact, an adequate collective response to dehumanizing social conditions? Do food allergies, like, say, spirit possession on Chinese factory floors, provide the relief people need to cope with the impacts of modernity, even as they suffer?

The Burning Man Book

I’ve blogged about Burning Man in the past, and my remarks on what an anthropology of Burning Man might look like have now been made nicely obsolete by the new book Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind The Burning Man Event by Katherine Chen. This slim volume from University of Chicago Press is, I believe, a revised version of the author’s dissertation, which was based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork with Burning Man organizers.

I have to admit I’m a little ambivalent about the book — on one hand, it is an ethnography. Of Burning Man. On the other hand Chen’s area of specialty is organizational sociology, a field that I’ve always somehow found vaguely dissatisfying (as one sociologist dryly put it to me: “Organizational sociology? The sound of me not caring can be heard from space.”). While I don’t doubt the validity of approaches in this area (they are doubtlessly taken far more seriously by Important People than anthropologists are) I find the approach ethnographically thin, with a tendency to render social reality somewhat diagrammatically, with abstracted authorial voices.

Chen’s book is definitely written in this genre — the book takes as a case study the maturation of Burning Man from its inception to its current state. She treats the event as exemplary of a successful organization that has ‘grown up’ successfully. What she is particularly interested in is the way that Burning Man has blended collectivist practices and bureaucratic ones to find a ‘sweet spot’ which allows the organization to flourish: neither an underorganized anarchy that cannot carry out the complex logistics of the event, nor a soulless machine that kills its corporatizes it to death, Chen paints the Burning Man organizers successful in their search to build an institution that will ‘serve us rather than rule us’, and recommends it as a model to others.

The tone of the book is extremely sober, and the ethnography very careful and, as far as I can tell, competently executed — so although I’m not a fan of the genre (and can’t really appreciate the volume’s significance to scholarship in that are) I can’t take anything away from the book. Given the possible salaciousness of the topic Chen is remarkably restrained (something I’m not sure an anthropologist could manage). The story Chen tells is of organizers wrangling volunteers and planning meetings, not people rolling around naked in the desert. Given the way that she quotes — extensively — real people and uses their real names, it makes sense for Chen to adopt this prudent tone.

The meat of the book on the event’s organization is nice for the counterbalance it provides to ideas that Burning Man is a purely spontaneous event where stuff just happens (an idea that I think has become less and less common over the past ten years that I, at least, have known about the event) but it’s not exactly the sort of thing you’d give to undergraduates to read about ‘the culture of burningman’. I can, however, see it serving as the core of what could be a semester long exploration of the event that relied on other readings, videos, etc.

So if you are interested in how organizations and social movements work, or if you are into Burning Man, Chen’s book is definitely for you. If you’re interested in a ‘way of life of a people’ ethnography you might be a bit disappointed. Still, given the topic and competence with which the book is written I think this is a book anthropologists ought to know about and take a look at.

The New Persistence of Memory: The Language and Popular Culture in Africa Archive

Some readers here may have seen my review of Johannes Fabian’s recent books, which are linked to a site he co-created with Vincent de Rooij called The Language and Popular Culture in Africa Archive. It’s a great small collection of original texts, translations and commentaries, curated with scholarly care, and representing hard to find and valuable resources. What’s more, even though it is a small-scale project, it was one of the first open access publications in anthropology, and could continue in this fashion if there were interested people.

Fabian wrote to me recently concerned about the future of this archive, highlighting several issues that I think we will all face in the near future:

As you may have noticed in my email signature below the address of our LPCA archive has changed (because of some reorganization at the University of Amsterdam). The old address that appeared in publications so far will get you there for a while but probably not forever. One of the vagaries of presence on the net. Also I say “our” archive because it has been a truly collaborative effort with Vincent de Rooij, a former student and a linguist-cum-anthropologists whose dissertation was about Katanga Swahili. He designed, maintained, and edited the website meticulously. And he did this for almost 10 years without any institutional funding or even academic credit, on his own time. This has become untenable for me but, more importantly, he has turned to other subjects and interests, which is of course entirely legitimate. So the sad news is that LPCA, though it can run, as it were, on autopilot for years as long as it keeps its space on the server, is, if not dead, in suspended animation.

I think such projects are the very lifeblood of anthropology today–far more so than the increasingly sterile walled gardens of the academic journals run by the Publishing Borg and its scholarly society minions. So what should we do to keep them alive:

  1. Volunteers? Is there anyone out there with an interest in and focus on popular culture in Africa, african linguistics or swahili who wants to help? This could be an editorial opportunity as well, since there is both the archive and a Journal associated with the project.
  2. How can we improve it, or make it more 2.0-y and social interneterrific without sacrificing what is already there? What’s the right back-end? The journal (Journal of Language and Popular Culture in Africa) could obviously be ported to Open Journal Systems, if someone wanted to do that, whereas the archive materials might be appropriate for Omeka.
  3. How can we make it more “official”– perhaps by assigning DOI numbers (what would a suitable registration agency be?) and so forth to make it findable as a library resource?
  4. Can we leverage the new “open anthropology cooperative” to find people who are interested and committed?
  5. Other suggestions for Johannes and Vincent as to how to make this project survive and grow?

Resource in US History and Culture: The Government Comics Collection

Screenshot from "Duck and Cover" fil...

Image via Wikipedia

The library at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln has posted a collection of digitized government comics and related material. There are about 180 freely-downloadable PDFs available, on topics ranging from health and human services to military training and recruitment.

Among my favorite is a 1951 AIr Force publication explaining psychological warfare entitled “Bullets? Or Words?” and illustrated by Milton Caniff, a comic-strip artist who gave us the syndicated comic strips “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon”.

In fashioning new psychological weapons, it is necessary to base them on sound scientific principles and an understanding of psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology and other allied fields of knowledge.


I’m also a fan of "Bert the Turtle Says Duck and Cover", which offers immensely useful and reassuring advice on what to do in case of a nuclear bomb explosion. “There is always something to shelter you – indoors, a schol desk, a chair, a table.” Funny how they left out lead-lined iceboxes, but perhaps the authors felt that went without saying.

Related material includes briefs for the artists and authors, as well as government reports on the impact of comics, such as the US Senate’s 1955 “Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency: Interim Report”. If you remember your history (or have read Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay) you’ll remember that the mid-‘50s saw a witch-hunt launched against comic book publishers and authors every bit as intense as the one launched against Hollywood, with comic books accused of promoting delinquent and violent behavior as well as homosexuality and anti-Americanism.

Although my interest is more sparked by the Cold War-era material, the collection dates up to the last decade, offering an interesting lens through which to view the last 6 decades or so of US culture and of the US government’s relations with its subjects.

Pocket God

For some time now, an application named Pocket God has consistently been at the top of the iPhone application store list of bestselling apps. One review describes Pocket God as “an entertaining app that lets you explore multiple ways of tormenting your cute little islanders.” But see for yourself:

I just wonder how it is that Apple finds an application in which people can throw shoes at a virtual Bush unacceptable, but find the virtual torture of Pacific Islanders perfectly OK? And how is it that after weeks of being one of the bestselling iPhone games, hardly anyone has commented upon the game’s racism? Just imagine, for instance, a game in which one were presented with a virtual shtetle filled with Jews one could torture, or a plantation full of African slaves? How is it that such applications would certainly be rejected by the Apple Store, and yet Pocket God does not even provoke controversy?

I suppose that most people who play this game think of the island’s inhabitants as fictitious primitives, rather than representatives of a particular ethnic group. I doubt people playing the game bear any hatred towards Pacific Islanders. And yet, I can’t help but see our inability to view cartoonish depictions of indigenous peoples, such as sports mascots, as representations of living peoples as problematic. In particular, I feel it ties in with the myth of a vanishing race, of a people who, defined in terms or their primitivism must have already given way to the forces of modernity, their very existence denied.

UPDATE: I don’t personally think Apple should be in the business of censoring applications based on content, but here is another story that is relevant to the current discussion:

The release (and subsequent removal) of an iPhone app called Baby Shaker this week has Apple in hot water with angry parents and children’s groups, who are demanding answers from Apple.

UPDATE: Seems that Canterbury University Lecturer Malakai Koloamatangi is now raising a stink about the game. See here and here (via Indigeneity)

UPDATE: Looks like the developers are going to make some changes in response to criticisms. (They are also hiring a PR firm.)