i’m often aware of how awkward i am. this awareness teaches me–those of us who learn kinesthetically might grasp the value of awkwardness more than, say, the value of just talk or vision. still, the sight of joggers in boston reminds me that before habitus became part of the structuralist toolkit, there was just marcel mauss’s chance observation of the nurse’s gait, the vague sense that one had seen that walk before and the moment of recognition. yes, it was in films, the starlet’s walk portrayed by nurse’s legs. was it studied or unconscious, this imitation? learned on the street or from the screen?
living between boston and a’tolan, a body picks up characteristic ways to move and be still that surprise me
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.
I’ve never been one for visual anthropology, and I’m totally uninterested in pushing the boundaries of what constitutes ‘ethnography’. As a fieldworker, I’m fascinated by the micro-dynamics of human behavior and how we create roles for each other to inhabit in everyday life. When I watch documentaries, then, I’m usually trying to imagine the human situations involved in production and let me tell you, there is a whole lot of that stuff in Captains, William Shattner’s documentary on the different actors who have portrayed captains in the sprawling Star Trek franchise.
Things get interesting quickly because it becomes obvious that the subject of the documentary is not the interviewees but the interviewer: Shattner’s real intention is clearly to make a documentary about himself and the long road he’s trod in life, and particularly to let the entire world know that he was once a classical thespian in the mould of Olivier and Gieldgud. The other major theme is how ennobled and wise he has become being forced to carry the entire weight of the Star Trek franchise on his back across the course of his career.
As a result the show focuses prominently on the fact that the other captains also started out in theater, mostly so Shattner can ask tell them about his time treading the boards. He asks them how Star Trek has changed them, so he can tell them how it has changed him. He asks them their views on life after death and the nature of infinity so that he can brood over his inevitable mortality. It is, in short, a clinic on how not to interview people, with special focus on the preoccupied and narcissistic interviewer. Absolutely fascinating to watch. Continue reading
I have always been pretty fascinated by the life histories of tourism destinations. Thinking about touristic spaces in a kind of archaeological sense–that is, over greater periods of time–is endlessly fascinating. I often wonder about the future of places like Las Vegas, Cancun, and Nakheel, especially since many international organizations (like the UNWTO) promote tourism development as a sustainable, surefire solution for socio-economic development. What will Vegas–or Cancun–look like in 100 years? What purpose will these places serve, and how sustainable will they actually be in the long run?
Many countries around the world continue to promote and finance ever more tourism development, in hopes that these investments will create long-lasting social and economic benefits. At least, that’s how the narrative goes. But what kinds of social spaces and places are being created under the guise of tourism, and what futures do these places face? What are the lasting social, political, and economic effects of these spaces? For a little insight, I am going to discuss a few tourist destinations that I have read about recently: Elmina, Ghana, Prora, Germany, and finally Acapulco, Mexico. Continue reading
It is not uncommon for us to refer to the corridors of academia as a kind of metaphor for the gossipy, informal, discourse which takes place outside of classrooms. Yet we rarely engage in ethnographic study of how academics actually use corridors. This is exactly what Rachel Hurdley has done. She wrote about her research in her paper “The Power of Corridors: connecting doors, mobilising materials, plotting openness.” I heard Rachel Hurdley talk about her research on my favorite BBC Podcast, Thinking Allowed.
Her paper is a response to efforts at moving academics towards more open, less walled-off spaces of the type which has become vogue in the business world.
the university is joining the latest movement in the public sphere towards open-plan, multi-functional, flexible, innovative structures which are constantly equated with ‘openness’, ‘innovation’ and ‘transparency’ by design experts and architects
Hurdley debunks the simplistic association of open spaces with the lack of hierarchy, pointing out the resemblance to feudal halls and much-despised modernist housing. She also highlights the creative and flexible ways in which people actually use corridors. Especially interesting is how she depicts corridors as resisting a single point of view, such as that embodied in Foucault’s panopticon:
These could be called processions of openings and closings between different knowledge domains or worlds: proffering left-overs, knowing not to eat them; talking by the printer, taking it away; putting her in the picture, writing his name in the gap. Similarly, static or one-way concepts of surveillance, spectacle and visibility are recast and mobilised. An ‘apex viewpoint’ at the turn by the director’s office is no more than a corner to a student; only the student can spot his supervisor’s office light.
In the interview she also discussed just how resistant faculty are to such changes. Some threaten to quit upon hearing of such proposed changes, while in places where they have already been implemented, many professors work at home.
Also mentioned during the interview was the fact that academics often use the corridor to “cancel e-mails.” That is, as they walk down the corridor they yell out through the open doors of their colleagues that they should ignore the e-mail they’d sent out earlier that day. She remarked that this seemed to fly in the face of our assumptions about the speed and ease-of-use of electronic communication, but I can totally understand this kind of behavior. Nobody wants to be the person who sends out a stream of e-mails correcting mistakes in previous e-mails, much better to yell it out as you walk down the corridor…