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Tag Archives: Anthropology

Howdy howdy reader, we’re back in the weird theoretical saddle with this week’s post, so buckle up, there are going to be a thousand references to previous weird theoretical posts. Let’s begin.

I complain a lot about academics, in a vague, scornful tone, but I don’t know that I’ve ever actually taken the time to really get into it beyond the obvious complaint: that they use big dumb words that only confuse people. It might come through a little bit when I talk about Erudition–the quality of having read a lot of stuff. These two critiques are related, insofar as they are part of the larger problem I have with academics: the distance between academic work and the real-world problems it could solve. I believe the work philosophers do should be able to enrich the lives of people who don’t have doctorates. I think that’s called pragmatism.

Now for the new content:

Academic research is narrow.

This is not BAD. Remember when I made that post about how scientific theory is socially constructed? That’s not a bad thing. Because here’s the deal about social constructs: they are a tremendously powerful tool we can use to explore the world. By constructing things which any human can learn socially, we make it possible for people to learn in a more focused way and skip straight to asking very specific questions, by relying on the knowledge that other people have built before. In other words, thanks to the theories we built, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time we want to calculate the carbon footprint of an electric car. We just ask the guy who has spent fifteen years studying electric vehicle energy efficiency. We ask an expert. 

This means we are, to some extent, reliant upon other people. This is also not bad. One of our oldest strengths as a species is that we can always rely on other people, and they, in turn, on us. At the risk of being hyperbolic, that’s the whole point of society. We are reliant upon each other.

This strength that theory gives us–a focusing, narrowing, boring in like a laser–is also the source of its big weakness. The guy who spends fifteen years studying electric cars necessarily has less time to study cello. The girl who learns rocket science has less time to read poetry. The poet who writes for a decade isn’t as well versed in how to change the oil on a zamboni. We are forced to specialize, and while we gain a great deal in that process, I think we also lose something.

Specifically, I think we lose big ideas. The world used to be full of big ideas. This is related to narrowing and erudition on a fundamental level: before the different disciplines became so focused, trying to be an intellectual required a lot of study, because you basically had to re-learn all of the relevant knowledge in the world before you could make statements that people would pay attention to.  But once you did that–once you’d read all the literature (which used to be possible), you wrote a theory of, well, everything.

To some extent this is inextricably connected to the existence of academia. We picked a few of these theories of everything as bedrock–atoms and particles, evolution and general relativity, behaviorism and neuroplasticity.

Sure, not everyone can write A Critique of Pure Reason–and that’s fine. But everyone has their own metaphysics, their own theory of the world, and more people should try to write it down. Why do I think this? Glad you asked, imaginary straw person.

Unwritten and untouched, our theory of the world is purely intellectual. It is inchoate. You cannot really evaluate a theory that isn’t written down; it’s too mutable. You have to make it concrete, and then you can begin the long work of assessing it, exploring it, making it more sophisticated. It’s only through practice that we learn the limits of our conception.

And it doesn’t really matter whether or not your personal theory is “perfect.” I mean, sure, great, maybe you’re the one person in seven billion who understands exactly how the universe works. But even things that are absolutely dead wrong can teach us something. We can learn life lessons from novels, and most of the things that happen in novels are fake. What matters more is that it exists, explicitly, in text, in a way which required its author to come to grips with it concretely, to really look at what’s on the page and go “yes, I wrote this on purpose.”

Maybe this is because of my background in philosophy. Maybe I’m just a pedantic nutjob. But I think that the work of trying to make sense of the world loses something when it requires ever more focused research, rather than rewarding people for trying to make sense of everything. Even if it is (as I suspect and have asserted) impossible for any single individual to really understand the universe, we should try. And in the attempt, in the struggle to present our inner cosmos in a rational, coherent way, we grow.

That’s the theory, anyway.

That’s also, in a nutshell, the point of this blog (and i swear to god this is the last time I say something about “the purpose of this blog is –)  An ongoing and personal engagement with the task of rigorously setting down what I think about, well, everything. It’s important to set reasonable goals for yourself. I blame Montaigne for this one.

See you next week.

 

 

 

It’s hard to stay productive, these days. For many of us, our daily life has, uh, changed a little bit. Most of us are now a month or two deep in a time-puddle, hours and days and weeks spent at home, in the same surroundings, in the same routine, and it’s very easy for huge amounts of time to race past as a routine begins to establish itself.

I’ve written previously about how constructive it is to talk about productivity. We could go further and interrogate what exactly I mean by saying something is constructive. But I think we shall not, at least not in this post, lest we get sucked into something beyond the scope of what I wanted to write today.

One thing you are probably noticing is that life is a little weird. I think now is a fantastic time to use this weirdness to talk about something that I talk about a lot: psychology. But I don’t mean the kind of airy-fairy highfalutin depths of the soul psychology I usually hawk on this webpage. This question is hopefully a little more practical.

What’s mental health?

The easy answer is the article that comes up when you google “Mental Health APA Definition.

menthealt

Here at JWF, we pride ourselves on making things uselessly complicated, and today will be no exception. Let’s dig into these ideas a little bit, and though I’m trying to keep this post under 1,000 words, you are under no such limitation; I invite you to consider these further than the scope of the post. I sure am.

Effective functioning in productive activities has long been a part of the way we evaluate people’s mental health. It’s closely connected to the idea of earning a living; you must be able to participate in the necessary work of society in order to be deemed a “normal” and healthy member of that society. There is a lively debate about this problem, because as you can imagine, it’s pretty important to decide how much “mental health” is connected to “productivity within capitalism.” There are solid arguments going around–I mean, on the one hand, the ability to take on and fulfill responsibilities seems intuitively to be commensurate with the idea of health, right? But if it is mentally unhealthy to be unproductive, then the way we define productivity matters a great deal, to make sure that we are using “mentally unhealthy” as an analytical term that means “people who are troubled”, and not as a variable which represents “people who don’t like their job.” There’s more to say here–there are libraries more to say here–but I’m already at 438 words and it’s not getting any shorter.

Effective functioning in healthy relationships. This one is more palatable to me personally, because I’ve previously spoken about the central place that I think socialization occupies in human happiness. It seems intuitively correct that people who are mentally healthy are more able to create and maintain relationships with others. But as always, the definitions become important, and we cannot possibly understate the work that the word healthy is doing. It’s easy to enter into an unhealthy or one-sided relationship, even if you do very little to contribute to that situation. And exactly what constitutes functioning in a relationship is worth questioning–after all, everyone has a different way of showing affection and maintaining boundaries.

The ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity, or, in a word, resilience, is something I’ve also written on before. It was actually a curiosity about the factors that go into psychological resilience that led to my modern interest in psychology, something that’s endured for years (along with the low-grade depression). This is actually the thing I have the least quarrel with; I’m a naturally more mellow person, predisposed to think that the world would be better if everyone was a little more chill, so this plays right into my biases in a very pleasant sort of way. We’d interrogate that more if I wasn’t rushing this blog post out at the last minute.

Overall the question I wanted to suggest in this post is one of normalcy. Hence the title. These psychological characteristics are all well and good–but it is only when these definitions are solidified that they begin to be at all useful as theory. How do we determine which definition is the one to settle on? For a long time, and in many sciences, these definitions are defined by normality, which is to say, data analysis. You interview 10,000 people, look at the qualities most of them have, plot that on a nice normal curve, and boom, that’s what normal is.

I’ve been snotty about this problem before, mostly because I am an insufferable proponent of particularism in all things. But it remains an important one, because there is a big difference between looking at the average characteristics in a group of 10 people over 1 year, and looking at the average characteristics of 1 person over 10 years.

827 words and I am desperately trying to get this post back on course, so here goes: as we live through what the commercials keep telling us is an “uncertain time,” we are given the opportunity to examine our behavior under a microscope, to compare ourselves a little less to others and spend more time with ourselves. Wouldn’t it be fun if, at the end of this, we emerged into our “new normal” with a more forgiving and nuanced understanding of what it means to be mentally healthy?

Thematically, we’ve been talking about this topic a lot at JWF. How we are meant to live in a time of global disaster. How we stay healthy and hopeful during crises, and how much a crisis demands that we drop the idea of health and hope and mourn, instead. But it’s been two months, and we’re not out of the woods yet, so now, we’re looking ahead.

Sure, there will be a “new normal.” But definitions are everything. What do you want your normal to be?

You know the old expression, “rules are made to be broken?” Like most things, there are places where that’s more true than others. And one of those spheres is within anthropology, specifically in the way anthropologists talk about “rules” in a culture.

That’s right, I’m socially distanced and no one can physically stop me, so I’m going to talk about Bourdieu again.

As you know, imaginary reader, I’m an airy-fairy big picture thinker. A pandemic hits, and I’m already thinking about the after. About the world, taken together. I have a thousand questions which we cannot possibly answer right now. But what I’m thinking about a lot is rules and customs. We love rules.

Humans, generally, love constraints. Our daily activities are full of constraints; time, space, rules, structures.

Time, as in not just what time it is, but also “time” as a dimension. Human behavior has meanings which are structured across time. Consider the handshake. The meaning of a handshake is affected by time. How long does it take someone to offer a handshake? How long do I wait before I accept? How much time do we spend shaking? How many “shakes?” How long does each shake take? What if we held hands and we were in a model of social interaction together? just kidding. unless…

Space, not just the fact that we exist in space as well as time, but the fact that we move through different spaces. The meaning of things is affected by space. Greeting someone with a firm handshake is normal when you’re in an office or a conference hall. It is very strange if you’re at home in bed. Unless you’re English, in which case it’s perfectly normal to wake up in the morning and greet your lover with a polite handshake.

Rules–not just “spoken” rules, but unspoken ones. What are the unspoken rules in your culture? In some places it’s normal to yawn loudly in public, in others it’s weird and uncouth. In some places it’s rude to ask someone about their family life; in others it’s quite normal. These roles are not learned explicitly; we’ve already talked about social construction, so I won’t inflict that on you again.

Structures are like rules, but different. By “structures” I don’t just mean physical structures (though those are important, and relevant here); “space” broadly covers physical structures. I mean the kinds of rules that are taken for granted. Bedrock assumptions. How you talk to your professor is not just based on one rule that only the two of you follow; it’s part of a group of rules and patterns.

Rules and structures are what I am thinking about regarding this pandemic that we’re all living together–and I do mean, all of us. Because there are “rules” and there are Rules. In terms of social science, we can think of “the passage of time” as a big-R Rule. You can’t circumvent it. That rule is not, in fact, made to be broken.

But little-R quotation mark “rules” and structures are not unbreakable. In fact, our handshake example is a fantastic one here: the ordinary “rule” of shaking hands on first greeting has been suspended. Something which we judged more important than preserving the rule has happened, and so each of us individually and collectively has decided not to follow it. We’d probably each make the same decision individually if we met someone who visibly had guacamole smeared all over their hands; but in either case the same moment happens; we suspend the rule, and improvise a solution.

The same thing happens within structures. Sometimes, a sufficiently exigent, urgent, immediate need can overrule structures. It happens all the time, when police waive traffic tickets for someone on the way to the hospital, when teachers give extensions to students. These cases are so frequent that there is actually a structure to accommodate violations of the structure; official extensions, verbal warnings–but sometimes, agents or organizations will even violate that structure, too.

The coronavirus-illustration here is…well, everything. The ordinary rules and structures which govern school, business, office courtesy, are suspended or modified. The time-frames and the spaces in which we do these things are similarly changed. And, on the societal level, many structures are changing; which brings me to my point:

mutually shared illusion

Thinking about big picture. The lesson we’re learning, especially “we” as the youth, the future. And it’s a big one. In the past, people said it was unfeasible for an entire workforce to go remote. That social programs like health care, welfare, or universal basic income were impossible to realize. This is false. This crisis is an object lesson in one of our fundamental human abilities:

Improvisation.

We like constraints. We live within many constraints. The vast, vast majority of those are self-created, or created by other humans, and we all, subconsciously, recognize this. We know when we can break the rules and when we can’t. We know that if we’re sick, we shouldn’t shake hands, even though it’s normally rude. The lesson we are learning is that this rule is bigger than you think. 

No human-made rule is unbreakable. This is what makes ethics such a pain in the ass. Given the correct situation, any human rule or structure can be suspended, and humans in the area will just…improvise around the problem. We’ll make shit up. This is all we do; we make shit up, all the time, and it’s so much easier to do that if you have a bunch of guidelines and rules to tell you what to do.

What does that mean for the future? I know the lesson many of us on the left are taking from all of this. I see it over and over. The culture is thinking it through, coming to the same conclusion.

covid 19 lessons

Remember this crisis. The next time someone says it’s impossible to make some kind of sweeping change to our society, fucking laugh at them. It happens all the time. The status quo is simply not a feasible argument any longer, and should never be again: Because for humans, rules are made to be broken.

 

I recently had the pleasure of reading this impassioned piece from the Washington Post. By “recently” I mean “today.” I’ve since reread it several times, because the commodification of American colleges and the narrowing of academic fields is an issue very dear to my heart.

As I reread this piece (which, now that I’ve begun this blog post, I confess I find rather uninspiring), I must ask: who is its audience? The author’s entire argument can be summarized by skipping the entire article and reading the last sentence: “Genuine education is not a commodity, it is the awakening of a human being.”

Great. Super. Fantastic. I’m on board. I agree.

Who are you talking to? Are you talking to me? I just finished college. I’m probably going back for more school. My response to a similar article was a little salty, to say the least–but still. Is this directed at future employers? At students? At current college professors?

I think it’s the third one. C. Door Number Three. The soaring rhetoric and its entrenched location within the Washington Post seem to corroborate this first impression. Use of the word “naive” (a word often used to encompass the analytical category of “people who don’t understand academia”) deepens my suspicion.

So what is this article saying, then, if it is directed at other professors? What is the ultimate message being conveyed? I don’t know–I’m not a professor (my only degree is a B.A., which I promise you was hard-earned).

My first and immediate point to make in response to this article is:

A): re: “Genuine education is not a commodity.” True. “Education” in a liberal arts context is learning how to engage with and integrate multiple disciplinary, cultural, and/or epistemological perspectives. In other words, it’s about learning multiple different ways of doing things, in order to be able to apply the appropriate one(s) to all relevant situations. It’s something you can achieve on your own, or with the help of your parents, or with the help of unpaid teachers, or at a state school, or at an Ivy-league university. Education is, as this good professor says, “the discovery that you can use your mind to make your own arguments and even your own contributions to knowledge,” (I’ve made this analogy before); mastering multiple different theoretical perspectives, much like Bruce Lee learned multiple martial arts–to be able to better accomplish your own goals with the most effective method.

HOWEVER

What happens throughout this article is a persistent (and, if I can borrow the word briefly, pernicious) conflation of the process of learning, the undergraduate experience, and the university-as-business. 

EDUCATION, as we’ve previously pointed out, can happen anywhere. An argument can be made that it’s easier to achieve “education” in a college environment. That argument is not occurring here (or, rather, it’s occurring off the page, a dirty trick that I would have expected from a philosopher, not a classics scholar (though the difference is sometimes hard to spot. The easy test? Do they ever mention German names?). The education is what “good” students are after. This is why they are good students–because whether by temperament or economic good fortune, they are highly interested in the self-improvement aspect of a college education, not just its value as a commodity. I was one of those students, because I was extremely lucky financially, and because I am a huge nerd.

The undergraduate experience is a whole other canteen of nematodes, which I’m not going to get into right now, but basically shorthand version: going to a college, participating in classes, learning from professors, etc., all are part and parcel of what makes college so transformative. College can force you out of your comfort zone (if you aren’t EXTREMELY, NEUROTICALLY devoted to remaining within it), and it’s when we’re out of our comfort zone that we grow. However, it’s not the issue at hand.

Number three (again number three! Second one in the article! I wonder if it has any cosmological significance…?): The university-as-business. This is the part that our author seems to be worked up about, which I find troubling for reasons I’ll expand below. But basically, my response: College has become a commodity in the U.S. (and in the wider world, I’m sure, but I am not concerned with that at the moment). As our author acknowledges, college is “replacing high school as the required ticket for a career.” This means that having a college education makes you stand out (even at my workplace, my co-workers make jokes about my “fancy college degree”). Your odds of being employed (and employed well) skyrocket. Success in college pretty heavily indicates success later in life.

Now, unlike the last article I blasted on my blog, I don’t entirely reject the author’s point here. The commodification of education is a problem (not just because of the way in which it bars the doors to the lower and middle classes). Some students do treat their college purely as a business, feeling entitled to a degree with no effort or challenge on their part. The government sees colleges as businesses, and so does not offer them any great degree (ha) of support.

Ultimately, colleges have adapted. The college I attended occupied an uncertain middle ground between being a business and a place of education. There was a tension between the institution’s bottom line and their values. On the student side, there was similar tension–we sought to balance our role as students with our newfound power as customers. It gives students an unprecedented degree of power, to acknowledge that they are customers. We have to figure out what that power MEANS, all of us, students and professors.

Hence, my concern. Rather than acknowledging the changing face of education (and trying to offer some direction going forward), this article seems to deny it. Education is not about money, the author says. It’s about the students’ engagement with the material. Well…that’s not true. Not any more.

Education is about money. It is inextricably, inalienably, unavoidably about money. Even when you’re talking about student engagement–who are the students who can afford to be engaged? The ones who don’t work an extra 30 hours each week to pay for school? The ones who don’t have to take care of children? The ones who could afford to go to school in the first place? The ones who could buy the textbooks–the list goes on. The point is: “student engagement” is not the boogieman to pin the problems on. Like it or not, the problems are more complex than that. We can’t escape the complexities of the present-day university by just demanding that students pay more attention.

That is where my problem with this piece comes in. I don’t think it’s wrong…I just think it’s not asking the right question. The question we need to ask ourselves is: What does it mean that students are now customers? What new pressures does that place on faculty? On students? On administration? What power does this give all of those involved in higher education? When a bad grade or a faculty grudge can make or break a students’ future, how do we negotiate these structures? And when a bad review or an angry parent can ruin a professor’s future, how do we negotiate these structures? What about higher education needs to change? And what needs to stay the same?

And for the love of GOD, can we not commit the fallacy of equivocation so damn much? Jeez, people. More of you need to take philosophy classes.

I would like to apologize in advance for this post. This lecture was originally delivered to the empty air at my workplace, early in the morning before we opened, as I worked at restocking the toy department. In its original form, the lecture was a masterpiece—a gem of rhetorical brilliance which I know I will not soon match. However, the workday that followed wiped out all but the roughest memory of my eloquence, and so what remains for you now is a pale imitation of the communiqué which should rightfully have been displayed here.

But disclaimers notwithstanding:

This rant was inspired by a throwaway line in James Cameron’s Avatar, a line which I may have remembered entirely incorrectly as being: “Good science is good observation.” Whether or not any character spoke these words, they became stuck in my head, and I couldn’t get it out without a ten-foot polemic.

It started me thinking (not surprisingly) about “theory” and observation.
“Theory” is a word I throw around a lot with some of my peers and mentors. We play fast and loose with it because we have a good sense of what “theory” is supposed to be. But when it comes time to explain “theory” for the very first time, to a wide-eyed audience (be they fifteen-year-old brothers or sleep-deprived undergraduates), the best metaphor I have so far found is the Theory as Lens.

Theory is like a pair of tinted glasses—or, more accurately, like the colored lenses in those glasses. It highlights certain shades of whatever it is you look at, and makes everything look somewhat alike. That lets us compare those things across something approaching the same dimension. For example, a theory of gravity lets us compare physical interactions across the same dimension—across a single, monochromatic dimension.

Now, there are issues with this metaphor—most prominently that this metaphor entails the idea that we are using theory to look at something. Really, a theory is an image of an object. The key points of the theory correspond to key points in the reality it represents—or, to put that another way; “That the elements of the picture are combined with one another in a definite way, represents that the things are so combined with one another.”  “Theory” is a representation of reality—so instead of glasses with colored lenses, briefly imagine a Polaroid with colored lenses. Isn’t that a weird image? This is why we went with the glasses thing.

But there are also real advantages to this theory, and one of my favorite points is this: If theory is like a lens, which highlights certain features of whatever we are looking at, then it becomes intuitive that looking at the same object with the same lens gives us no new information. To gain new information, we must make a change, either internally, in the way we approach the lens, or instrumentally, in the kind of lens we use. In other words, you can only learn so much by looking through one lens. Like looking at a multi-colored picture through a mono-color lens, the world has more information than can be parsed by a single theory. To put it in a punchy philosophical one-liner: Complex phenomena require a theoretical complex.

In the effort to investigate complicated situations, we have to use multiple theoretical perspectives. Jung employed “modern” psychology, Gnostic text, and echoes of the German Romantic tradition in pursuit of a theory of the soul. James Hillman, following him, employs Jung, comparative religion, and biographic methods while seeking the same goal. The classic French sociologists integrate philosophy, sociological theory, public statistics, and historical methods to investigate the patterns of organization and interaction between humans on the individual level and above.

So a theory is like a martial art—it’s good to master one, but you become Bruce Lee if you master all of them.

Okay, that was a weird way of putting it. More accurately:

Any one theory can be an extremely powerful way of representing events in the world. Theories can accentuate the shared factors in areas which might appear vastly different to “the naked eye,” letting us examine, for example, human silence and conspiracy on the level of friend groups and on the level of entire cultures.

But a single theory can only do so much work. And so the point becomes a little teleological—which theories you deploy (and how many) depends on what you want to do. For extremely basic physics calculations, Newton’s laws are good enough to get by. For higher-level work, you might want to also include theories on wind resistance, breaking points,  aerodynamics, and even particle interactions. No one theory is going to get a rocket to the moon, and no one theoretical perspective is going to create a discipline.  So for some tasks, a single theory will get you far. But for others…you need to get a little more creative.

This is just the beginning. More on theory and disciplinary boundaries will follow.

Stay tuned for more semi-weekly rants about theory, politics, and whatever action/sci-fi movie I was watching last night!

Have you ever read gender theory?

sweet mother of

 

oh god make it stop

Now, this is not exactly “gender theory”; this is feminism in a raw, elementally academic form.  This is not just any feminist theory: this is Judith Butler.

Judith Butler, whose Wikipedia picture stares out at you with the piercing gaze of Galadriel, has written extensively about gender theory–and identity at large–including Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of Sex.  She has produced many brilliant pieces, which are just as easy to read as other writing we have previously discussed, like the Outline of a Theory of Practice:

oh please not again

oh please not again

Why is that? It’s not just Butler (who, I stress again, is brilliant).  Gender theory at large is permeated, saturated with big words.   I’ve discussed this before.   If you haven’t read Bodies that Matter, you should. Butler’s writing is fantastic, and mind-blowing, and meshes well not only with gender theory but with contemporary phenomenology.

Unfortunately, Butler is also somewhat impenetrable.  No worse than Bourdieu or Foucault or Husserl or any number of other academic writers, but then the purpose of feminism is not “merely” academic, is it? It should not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that feminism is concerned with theory only as it relates to the achievement of certain stated goals; I.E. the advancement of a political perspective which co-opts the affectations of academic discourse to further its own propagation.  Thus, authors like Butler infiltrate the larger ongoing discussion of identity by using the regular linguistic patterns of “academia”; a subversive approach to feminist writing.

Partly that’s because it’s JUST SO EASY to slip into jargon.  We (and by “we” I am broadly generalizing about anyone who has been taught to talk about gender) have learned certain words, and we have trouble thinking about the topic in other words, let alone speaking about it.

But “the academic discourse” is not the only conversation.  And for every person who finds Butler’s work illuminating, there are lots more who find it inhospitable.  The language which feminism has learned can integrate it into academic discourse quite effectively, and more’s the pity; many promising fields and causes have failed as a result of being entirely integrated with academic discourse.

For feminism to succeed, it needs a voice that can be understood by everyone, not just by academics. For a broad cultural change to take place, feminism must permeate to every level of this big Marxian layer cake called “society.”

When I say “feminism must do x to succeed,” of course, I am drawing on actual stated feminist goals, which tend to exist either in the short term (I intend to use this paper to show the production of gender in interaction, I intend to challenge the perception of the body as a single entity, etc.) and also in the longer term (reshaping society, dismantling the patriarchy, creating cultural change).  To both of these types of goals, the academic voice is, of course, crucial.  We learn from the academic voice.

But we also need feminists who speak plain English.  Who can explain that gender is not quite as solid as it seems.  It isn’t an impossible task, but it is a challenging one.

For example, we can explain that (although we use it to define ourselves, identify ourselves, give ourselves shape and solidity), gender is like a handshake.  A handshake takes place between two people.  The handshake exists only in the interaction between the two people, and everyone involved in the handshake thinks about the others based on what they observe in the gesture.  Let’s slow that down and repeat: The handshake exists in the interaction between two people.  The handshake does not have an independent existence above and beyond two people.  It is not a “thing” you can point to.  It is the product of interaction, and it is created each time two people grab each other’s fingers and squeeze.

Now, no one identifies themselves by their handshake (except perhaps used car salesmen from the 1950s), but you could. You could define yourselves as a soft shaker or a hard shaker (shut up).  And you judge other people based on what you learn from that quick interaction: Do they have a strong handshake? Do they have a good grip? How are they holding their fingers?

Gender is the same way—we make decisions about ourselves and other people based on what we see, and what we do.

Are they wearing a dress? Makeup? What’s their body language like? And we can define ourselves as a dress-wearer, or a feminine-body-language-have-er—or, to use shorthand, a woman.  True, there are more moving parts in gender than there are in a handshake.  Handshaking involves how you hold yourself, your shoulder, and your hand.  Gender involves how you hold yourself, how you use your body, how you talk, how you think, what you wear, what you say, when you say it, whether or not you are comfortable saying it–and more.

Have you ever found yourself being more of a “dude” when surrounded by dudes? More “womanly” when surrounded by women?  Have you ever “dialed back” your gender (or heck, any other identity) in order to fit in?Have you squeezed harder on someone’s hand because their handshake was firm? Did you begin to make nerd culture references because you were talking to nerds? Have you changed what you do, to change what people think of you? Yes you have. What we do changes when we talk to different people. We’re human.  We calibrate.

shut up, Garrus

“Hey! That’s my job!”

In turn, when we have figured out who we are, when we make that apparent in our gender “handshake,” other people take that and interpret it in their own way.  You do that too.  It’s how we understand people.  Is someone wearing an Attack On Titan hoodie? Are they whistling a song by Fleetwood Mac? What other people are doing changes who and what we think they are.

Slowing it down; what does this mean? Gender is like a handshake.  A handshake consists of things we do (sometimes unconsciously–have you ever given a handshake without really thinking about it?) in interaction with other people.  It doesn’t exist outside of human context.  A huffy anthropologist once said “Human thought is consummately social.”

What does that mean? Gender exists only in human interaction and in human minds, not as a thing unto itself.  Does that mean gender isn’t important?

Not in the slightest.  Some other time, I’ll address the idea that just because something exists only in the human mind, it isn’t real, but for now we’ll bracket that issue and set it aside with the comment that it’s dumb.

Gender exists only in the interaction and performance of people.  Gender isn’t important?

Then why do we still shake hands?*

*You can replace “handshake” with any other reflexive, person-to-person cultural gesture, like bowing, high-fiving, greetings, language, the NHL…)

 

Gender is fundamentally important to us all.  The history of the world agrees.  But what is it? I am beginning to discover that it is much more than it seems.  And it is only by understanding that, that we can begin to talk about gender in any productive way.  Only by realizing that gender perpetuates itself in what we do, consciously and unconsciously, every second of every day.  Gender is something we do, and something we have done since childhood.  It is habit many times over.

That is what feminism is up against.  “Patriarchy” merely refers to billions upon billions of habits across billions of people, all placed below the level of consciousness, which have the final, practical, real-world result of destroying, oppressing, and handicapping human development. 

That’s a big job.  It’s not one you’ll finish just by controlling academia.  It needs to be the groundwater.  Feminism needs to be ubiquitous.  So if you’re still reading, and you’re a feminist, I would say this:

Take feminism everywhere. Not even in your overt actions, but in your thoughts.  Feminist theory can be at its most potent and most subversive when it is behind the scenes, when it is upsetting the foundations of the world and pretending to be business as usual.  When it seems to be the most natural thing in the world, feminism has the upper hand.

We have a big task.

Time to get cracking.

Hello reader,

I am confused.

Welcome back to jungwildeandfree, the vaguely anthropological/psychological/philosophical blog of an undergraduate student, a mixture of content which is either stripped from my academic journal or generated ex nihilo in cafes and coffee shops across the continental United states.

Let’s get this straight before I get started: I love academia.  It is my favorite place in the world, the place where I feel most at home.  There is nowhere else in the world where I can say “Geil is the dump truck!” and get a dramatic response.  Passive-aggressive academic critiques make me laugh my head off, and I would love to spend hours reading any collection entitled “Things Clifford Geertz Has Said Of Other Things.”   It’s full of people and concepts with complex names that are perfect for puns.  Pierre Bourdieu.  Cultural capital. Michel Foucault.  Archaeology.   The only other place in my experience that has such a massive wealth of in-jokes and stealthy puns is the internet, and I enjoy bandying about those memes as well.

Possibly it’s because I grew up watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

You’ve never heard of the Flying Circus?  Now I’m even more confused.

Let me explain.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a British television sketch comedy show that ran for four series and five years, created almost unilaterally by graduates of high-powered academic communities.  It was a sometimes surreal, often intellectual, frequently incomprehensible, completely hilarious show, and it was like (almost) nothing that had ever come before.It cannot be adequately described in text, so here are some classic samples: How Not To Be Seen, The Dead Parrot Sketch, and Philosophers’ World Cup.

It was my bread and butter growing up.  The theory I like to put forward (indeed, the theory am putting forward right now) is that it fundamentally shaped my sense of humor toward the strange, the bizarre, and the unapologetically intellectual, and sometimes the completely dumb.  As evidence I provide some of my favorite authors: Oscar Wilde, Terry Pratchett, John Kennedy Toole, and of course Spongebob Squarepants.  These were my cultural capital, my intellectual heritage and the means by which I connect with other people who share my weird taste for sass.

That is my establishing monologue; now you have some sense of where I’m coming from in my life.  Now we’ll move on to the actual point of the blog post, which is explaining why I’m so confused.

You see, I am an anthropology major.

Anthropology, for the uninitiated, is the science and study of humans.  It consists, broadly, of four categories: Archaeology, linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology, and cultural anthropology.   I am a cultural anthropologist.

Cultural anthropology is the science of gradually becoming less and less certain about anything you once considered to be real and solid, until such time as you become a void of total confusion/improvisation and gain the ability to pass this intellectual angst on to others.

Or, to put it in a more complementary light: Cultural anthropology is the practice of questioning every assumption we make, with the intention of laying bare the hidden motivations behind things that we might normally think are natural. 

Case in point: Gender.

When I started college, I learned the simple definition of gender.  Gender is the cultural/psychological part of the masculine or feminine, and sex is the biological.  Either way, easy.  Simple.  “I got this,” I said to myself.  But then I thought back to my biology courses and things got complicated.  And then I took more anthropology courses and things got more complicated.

I read an article by a dude named Goffman, “On Face-Work,” which suggested that when two people interact, they inter-act. When we interact, we perform ourselves, whether we do it on purpose or not.  When we interact with people, we do what we’ve learned to do, and we do things that we want to be seen doing.

Which is troublesome when it comes to gender, because gender is heavily performed.  How do I know what gender you are if I can’t tell from your clothes? Your hair? Your makeup? Even the way we refer to ourselves can be part of gender.

But it’s the word performed that is really messing with my head now, because the other day in class I was brought face-to-face with an even more nebulous possibility:

An actor isn’t actually the role they perform.  It’s not an identity that they assume, unless that role was a particularly meaningful one.  If the role becomes important enough to them, then the actor might take it on with a certain fondness.

So…then, if we perform gender like an actor performs a role, doesn’t that mean that gender isn’t really a thing in and of itself? What if that means that gender identity isn’t anything that we could nail down as existing in any kind of actual meaningful way? What if “Gender” is just a part of the way we interact with others? 

Well, shit.  That kinda throws a wrench in the works.  At least we still have biological sex as a benchmark. Right? Right.  That’s something physical.  That’s something real. I am biologically male.  I can say that definitively–because my phenotype (physical shape) happens to line up with my genotype (genetic design), which happens to line up with the level of hormones in my blood.   Because my body looks male, acts male, and because my genes read as male.

…Which isn’t always true.  Not everyone’s body always lines up along that biological game of tic-tac-toe. So that really isn’t particularly helpful either, now is it?  Turns out we might have people who are biologically and genetically male, but hormonally female or hormonally asexual.  Or people who are genetically male and biologically and hormonally female. GAH. I don’t even.

Now, I’m not going to demand to see a blood screen before I call you “Miss” or “Mr.”  Really, the ultimate point is,  there’s no way to tell who you are, unless you give me a hint.  If you tell me your pronouns, if you show me a hormone count, if you perform your gender in a certain way, then I’ll know what’s up. (Or I’ll think I will, until you surprise me)

But until that happens…well, if I think about it too hard, I’m gonna need a stiff drink.

As I said; cultural anthropology is the gradual process of becoming less and less certain about anything you ever considered to be solid or natural.   That doesn’t mean it’s not fun.   And I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

But I’m still confused.

The only thing that’s changed is that now, you might be too. Oops.

Hello reader,

Welcome to the fourth post in the Divisions series! I could make this segue more gracious, but I’d rather hurl you right into the thick of it.

Have you ever played an online multiplayer game? No? It’s somewhat poignantly similar to real life.

I myself am an avid player of an online multiplayer game about spaceships.  I have always been a fan of flight simulators, and like many people I am also a fan of explosions and pointless violence.   Therefore, this game is perfect for me, because it allows me to (a) fly really fast, (b) blow things up, and (c) be a little bit of an asshole.

Actual in-game footage.

I’m a special person.

Now, I don’t just mention this because I’m playing the game as I write this post. NAY, I mention this because it made me think about ethics as I was playing it.

A perpetual source of frustration in online player-against-player games is the skill gap, as any gamer can tell you.  Nothing is more infuriating than going up against someone who is just legitimately better than you at pressing a particular sequence of buttons to make your magic box turn a particular color.

What’s just as frustrating is the premium gamers.  The people who have, for whatever reason, elected to spend money on the game and improve themselves accordingly.  These people usually have some inherent advantage over the other players–even if it’s just that their ship looks cooler.

In other words, it’s not fair.  Which can be annoying.  Studies have shown that even monkeys understand when a situation is unfair.  Now if monkeys can pick up on an unjust pay system, surely popular news programs video game players can figure out when something is unjust.

This had been much on my mind recently when I went into my Chinese Philosophy course. So you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when I found my exact concern addressed by my professor, who addressed the idea of fairness in Chinese culture.*

*keep in mind that this is an idealized concept of “Chinese culture,” which was doubtless designed more to help provide a foundation for understanding for students who had never been to China, nor studied anything remotely Chinese.**

**but why on earth should that mean that we can’t use it to draw useful moral lessons?

His essential point was tied back to earlier discussions of the communal, fragmented social system, in which each individual in the heirarchy is responsible for their own little bit of power.  Much like the mythological landscape, where each brook and bramble has a spirit, everyone has a little power, which they exercise as subtly as possible. Even the housemaid has her own little sphere of influence–piss her off, and your dishes will be ever so slightly dirty for months.

Their society, like every society, is unfair. Civilization is unfair.  Civilization is based upon structures of asymmetrical power, upon hierarchies and hegemonies, and it is inherently incapable of becoming ‘fair.’  No one is born with the exact same set of privileges and plans as anyone else–and think how boring it would be if we were all the same!  There would be no one new to talk to.  Every conversation would be like watching a Frasier re-run for the seventh time–once, it might possibly have been interesting, but now, it’s exactly what you expected.

What I find interesting is that we, in the West, have come up with this idea that somehow the world needs to be fair.  Somehow everything needs to be balanced.  Everyone needs to be equal.

I think this is stupid, not to mention perspicaciously false.   (whoa) (what a big vocabulary) (and you know what they say about guys with big vocabularies) (they have large theories about the nature of reality)

If you’ve grown up and existed anywhere ever, you realize that people are not equal.  Some people are smarter than others.  Some are better at sports, or at wearing clothes, or at asking questions or doing academic work or hanging clothes–and whether this disparity is the result of legitimate skill-building or not doesn’t matter, because the end result is: nothing is ever going to be truly fair. 

This is obvious.  And I should stress at this point that I don’t disagree with fairness as an ideal.  I think it’s a good place to start.  But it isn’t enough.  Do we really want equality? I think that sounds dull, like a movie where everyone is the same character.  Real life has a dynamic quality–and I mean that in the dictionary definition of the word, as in life is a dynamic system, constantly changing, kept in balance by the flow of energy and advantage from one person/group to the next.

I still reflect on ethics when I play my spaceship game.  But now I fly secure in the knowledge that, while we may not all fly from the same starting point, my ion emitters can turn the enemy to slag just as effectively as anyone else’s.  And that’s what we really want–not for everyone to be equal, but for everyone to be able to have fun, to enjoy life, to develop themselves to the fullest point of their potential, and to unleash molten hell upon their enemies in the form of 70-pound coil-driven mortar shells.

Tune in next time, reader, when we take this point about value, inequality, and fairness and apply it to the universe!  

Hello again, reader! Welcome to part three of the Divisions series of posts! Last time, we left off talking about mythology and values.  In this post we’ll be talking about space.

Interstellar space?

Not exactly.

We’re not talking about the cold, remote void between planets.  We’re talking about space in the sense of space.  The world around us.  The space in which we build buildings and interact with one another. Space. You know, space.

Space often gets a little funky around humans.  One minute we’re wandering around on the plains, and the next we have thresholds and houses, and begin to chop up the universe into little manageable bits and pieces, some of them with great meaning and significance.   Space is all around us–but not all space is made equal.  Or, more accurately, we make space unequal.

Think of the space inside a church.  If you’re like me, you’ll notice instinctively that there is something different about a place of worship.  No matter how dogmatically you believe that all religion is hogwash, your voice is hushed, your breath is stilled, and all minds turn inward in reflection.

In reflection and in contemplation of copyright laws protecting photography of gothic cathedrals.

If that example fails to move you, consider another space: your home. Your home sits in the same open air and under the same weather as any other point on the planet. Why, then, does it seem so completely solid? Why does home seem so safe? Why do we relax when we close the door behind us? There is nothing particularly magical about a door.

Of course, we don’t call these spaces sacred any more.  There is nothing magical about the first dorm room we ever inhabit, or the first job we ever held.  We have progressed beyond the need for religion, right?

“…this experience of profane space still includes values that to some extent recall the nonhomogeneity peculiar to the religious experience of space.  There are, for example, privileged places, qualitatively different from all others–a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in youth.  Even for the most frankly nonreligious man,  all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had recieved the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.” 

The spiritual world is coterminous to our own.  Sacred and profane overlap, but the sacred moment breaks through only occasionally, bringing with it timeless moments that influence us for years or decades.

WE’RE GOING BACK TO CHINA NOW.

Remember how we talked about mythology in China?

One thing that you might know already about eastern mythology: everything depends on where you are.  Every shrine, tree, and stream has its own place spirit, its own genius loci.  Space in our culture is divided.  Space in China and Japan is microdivided. A forest is divided into glades and rivers which are divided into individual trees and pools.  And the space matters.  If you’re on the river, you’d better be prostrating yourself to the river spirit.  If you’re in the forest, you’d better be damn friendly to the trees. And if you’re on a mountain, you’d better be showing proper respect to that mountain spirit.

The same thing happens in social spaces, not just in China but in many more communal cultures.  Each social task and economic niche is taken care of on a local and individual level.  It’s like the atmosphere at a small school.  If you want to get some help with your coursework, you don’t go to the outside world or onto the internet; you go talk to Kim in Learning Enrichment.  If you want to get into a club, you don’t fill out an application online; you find Will and schmooze with him for twenty minutes.  The division of sacred space is paralleled by the division of social space–and so, in Chinese mythology, it’s all about who you know.

So to recap: our experience of the world is divided.  Space may be infinite, formless, and homogenous–but humans slice it up into bits and pieces.  The same thing happens with social roles, although the West has by and large moved away from this model (except in small towns).  We divide the formless mass of society into infinite little groups, as this XKCD cartoon clearly shows:

In the next post, we’ll look at possible implications of a worldview where everyone has their own niche and responsibility–it makes for a very commonsense approach.

Hello reader, and welcome to the second post in the ‘Divisions’ series, which is peeled wholesale from the pages of my academic journal.

Last time, we left off on the suggestion that myths should not be evaluated solely on their intellectual content–that is to say, on what the myth says explicitly.  The important moves of the myth are not the ones in which they talk about people riding eight-legged horses or throwing around a hammer too heavy for anyone to lift.  The important moves of the myth are hidden.

My philosophy teacher asked a question of the class.  He said “What is the difference between a legend and a myth?”  Now, I have had a slightly unconventional education, so I raised my hand and said “A myth is more sacred, where a legend is more in the realm of the profane,” to which probably a few people said “say what now?”

Let’s back up a bit.  With the aid of a gentlemen named Mircea, let’s hash out a rough idea of what I mean by “the sacred.”

The first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane.” 

Helpful.  Thanks.

But in reality this is quite helpful, because we know what the profane is.  It is the ordinary, the normal, the mundane.  In recent times it has taken on a negative connotation, but put simply, what is profane is simply and literally unholy. 

So. The sacred, or the holy, is something that is not part of our daily experience. Indeed, our friend named Mircea says quite explicitly that we “become aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane.” 

The passage right after that is the really fun one though;

“The modern Occidental experiences a certain uneasiness before many manifestations of the sacred.  He finds it difficult to accept the fact that, for many human beings, the sacred can be manifested in stones or trees, for example.  But…what is involved is not a veneration of the stone in itself, a cult of the tree in itself. The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adored as stone or tree; they are worshipped precisely because they are heirophanies, because they show something that is no longer stone or tree but the sacred, the ganz andere.” 

It would probably be helpful to speak a little German at this point; ‘ganz andere’ means “all other,” or “wholly other.” It is used here to represent something that is, quite simply, outside of our ordinary experience–a feeling, emotion, or presence that we most definitely do not feel every day.

So, to recap: what is the sacred?

Have you ever stood on the edge of a cliff and looked over? Or stood at the foot of a magnificent oak tree and felt dwarfed by its presence? Does the ocean make you ponder the vastness of infinity? Do you feel a deep, all-consuming awe when you read through astronomy textbooks?  Has your heart ever pounded out of your chest as you took someone’s hand for the first time?

That,   That is the holy.  I want to stress here that this concept of the sacred is not tied to religion.  This is strictly a matter of spirituality–our experience of the spiritual.  The most vehement atheist in the world can still be reduced to tears in the face of nature’s majesty.

In contrast, our normal existence? The daily hungry/thirsty/bored/happy/sad/tired/rested cycle? That is the profane.  The normal.

Returning to our topic: what is the difference between a myth and a legend? Well, properly speaking, a legend takes place in the profane world.  King Christian X of Denmark  is the subject of legends.  He was an ordinary man who did not exhibit supernatural powers, even if he was a lovely person.  No demons came down to do battle with him.  No angels sang for him.

A myth, by contrast, is touched by the sacred.  King Christian X of Denmark is not a myth.  Cu Cuchulain is.  Cu Cuchulain was a warrior, who was quite literally touched by the sacred: he was a violent, enthusiastic fighter blessed by the old Gods.  When surrounded by his enemies, the Morrigan, the Crone, came down to rest on his shoulder, and he tied himself to a rock to keep upright and fighting till the very end.

This myth conveys a story–a man of tremendous, possibly insane bravery.  It conveys something that the old Celts valued (something that their descendants still value today): mad loyalty and a reckless enjoyment of  trouble for trouble’s own sake.   In short, it conveys a cultural value.

Ah, see? Not so difficult; eight hundred words later and we’ve arrived at this conclusion: The purpose of a myth is not to be literally true.  The purpose of a myth is to express a value, to act as a carrier for morality.

Why do we start a philosophy course with mythology? Because mythology informs and inspires philosophy.  Mythology creates the cultural world in which people operate. Especially in terms of ethics and imagination. A myth is a narrative of significance, value, divinity, cosmic importance. It carries a message. Is it true? Does it matter?  If you learn a virtue from a story–if you learn courage, integrity, honesty, loyalty from a story–does it matter if it’ s true or not?

I don’t think so.

But we aren’t done yet.   Tune in next time, and we’ll talk about our friend Mircea Eliade some more, with an exploration of the role that space plays in the sacred.