film&theatre resumé 2020

Media and America

Somehow, the Republican Party and the GOP-leaning Fox News have convinced their audience — and even some people on the left — that their rhetoric and press represents the “real” America. Liberals are characterizing themselves as champions for a new America while they agree with the GOP that Fox News, rural lives, and guns are part of America’s lifeblood. The truth is, none of the mainstream media outlets — including Fox — represent what “America” really thinks.

First of all, all media outlets have bias, but it’s not Fox standing alone against the “liberal media.” It’s not that cut-and-dry.  “Americans” don’t generally think and feel all alike. Fox News tends to pound the drum of “us versus them.” Real Americans versus leftists. To claim that Fox News represents any monolithic group of Americans is to buy into that attitude

It’s good to consume media from a wide number of sources. But we have polls and scientific studies to tell us what Americans feel. And we shouldn’t take any one media outlet to be the barometer of the nation. Let’s not fall for the claim that Fox News is a more authentic source. Let’s not confuse entertainment media (yes I said it) with journalism.

Read the original response on Medium.

film&theatre resumé 2020

Inherited Discrimination

Recently I Facebooked this post from Bunnika discussing the relative vs. actual progress for women’s rights, and the rhetorical strategies of men’s rights advocates. She demonstrates how men’s rights rebuttals often depend upon the vary ideologies and stereotypes that enforce gender inequality. Almost immediately, I got a comment from a gentleman calling out the “poison” and “inequality” of the post. If you read Bunnika’s blog, you’ll know this is hardly the most “fightin’ words” of her repertoire. The commentator argued that society is full of institutions like feminism, and because feminism is now so ingrained, it’s difficult for men to fight it when their rights are being infringed upon. He urged me to consider both sides rather than hiding from discussions like most feminists he’s encountered. Well, I have, and even talked with him, and he’s the one who didn’t respond. The truth is, movements like feminism and MRA are both in response to perceived inequality. Our learned definition of our gender identities inform every sex-based argument we have.

That said, there is clear sex discrimination against women in the workforce, in the legislatures, and in culture. I’m not going to post statistics because as my commentator pointed out, fighting statistic against statistic is time-consuming and ultimately pointless. As a theatre techie, a gamer, a writer, a (former) retail worker, a student, a political activist, and a sexual partner, I have in every one of those vocations been demeaned, ignored, ridiculed, or undermined based on my sex. Do I perceive myself to be underprivileged? Yes, in the sense that I must remain aware of the challenges, of the odds against me. I learned that I could rarely grab a screw gun or pick up a large package without some man rushing up to me with concern. This “helpfulness” is based upon an assumption that women should not be strained, physically or otherwise. Every election season we have politicians expressing concern over whether or not a female politician can balance her career with her family. And when even sex symbol Beyonce calls out the gender pay gap, we realize that even women in power can feel relatively lesser. MRA may argue that men are increasingly diminished in American society, but are they reacting to ideological shifts in gender perceptions or to practical shifts in, say, Congressional seats? As an anthropologist, I cannot declare which side is “right,” but I can ask how both movements are impacted by their culturally-learned assumptions, and how the hegemonic ideologies inherited by both inform the agency of social actors.

It’s not just sexism and sex-related movements that are driven by these psychosocial processes.  Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) recently

criticized the grant money that will soon be coming to eastern North Carolina for one reason: it will be used to buy books about Muslim culture. […] Jones protested that the money was unfairly benefiting Muslims and harming Christians, as he explained in a local TV interview. […] Jones told WITN he wrote a letter in response to the grant to a local Christian organization, asking for them to provide an equal number of Judeo-Christian items to offset the new Muslim culture books in the library’s collection.

This equation of inclusion with promotion is a part of white Western ethos that seriously impacts institutional equality. By the same token, feminists’ ideology of inclusion has led many men to criticize feminism for its promotion of women. As I once tried in vain to explain to a conservative ex-boyfriend, if the scales are uneven, one must add a little more weight to the lesser side, and that was the goal of political feminism. Unfortunately, no amount of logic can sway some men who grew up with a historically learned idea of male superiority.

In a similar case, a documentary I just watched about the battle in Tucson, AZ over Raza classes in Tucson High showed that the program’s opponents were horrified that students were engaged in “non-white” learning. The Hispanic students and teachers in the program were accused of communism, sedition, racism, and anarchism, among other things. The program, which had increased the graduation rate of Hispanic students, was ultimately dismanted by Gov. Jan Brewer, under recommending of the state school board’s findings that the classes “indoctrinated” Hispanic students into “non-American” ways. The teachers’ lesson plans? Mexican history and culture, the Spanish language, and discussion of Hispanic culture in the United States. That a non-white approach was included in the public schools was a cause for outrage among conservative white Arizonans.

As was the case with the civil rights movement, and as we see with continued work for gender, racial, LGBT, and ethnic equality, social movements are ultimately won by the force of the actors’ argument and their manipulation of prevailing ideologies to their benefit. As a certain dialectic must occur for change to do so, we can hardly condemn any movement for their explicit intent, but only their methods.

See also:

Male Jurors More Likely to Find Fat Female Defendents Guilty

film&theatre resumé 2020

Sexualized Advertising…of Kids’ Products?

Somewhat of a departure from the topics we’ve been discussing of late, but interesting: A Knox College study of young girls brings to light factors of self-sexualization:

Media consumption alone didn’t influence girls to prefer the sexy doll. But girls who watched a lot of TV and movies and who had mothers who reported self-objectifying tendencies, such as worrying about their clothes and appearance many times a day, in the study were more likely to say the sexy doll was popular.

The authors suggest that the media or moms who sexualize women may predispose girls toward objectifying themselves; then, the other factor (mom or media) reinforces the messages, amplifying the effect. On the other hand, mothers who reported often using TV and movies as teaching moments about bad behaviors and unrealistic scenarios were much less likely to have daughters who said they looked like the sexy doll. The power of maternal instruction during media viewing may explain why every additional hour of TV- or movie-watching actually decreased the odds by 7 percent that a girl would choose the sexy doll as popular, Starr said. “As maternal TV instruction served as a protective factor for sexualization, it’s possible that higher media usage simply allowed for more instruction.”

Mothers’ religious beliefs also emerged as an important factor in how girls see themselves. Girls who consumed a lot of media but who had religious mothers were protected against self-sexualizing, perhaps because these moms “may be more likely to model higher body-esteem and communicate values such as modesty,” the authors wrote, which could mitigate the images portrayed on TV or in the movies.

However, girls who didn’t consume a lot of media but who had religious mothers were much more likely to say they wanted to look like the sexy doll. “This pattern of results may reflect a case of ‘forbidden fruit’ or reactance, whereby young girls who are overprotected from the perceived ills of media by highly religious parents … begin to idealize the forbidden due to their underexposure,” the authors wrote.

[…]
The authors [of the 2007 APA study] cited examples like “advertisements (e.g. the Sketchers naughty and nice ad that featured Christina Aguilera dressed as a schoolgirl in pigtails, with her shirt unbuttoned, licking a lollipop), dolls (e.g. Bratz dolls dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings and feather boas), clothing (e.g. thong underwear sized for 7- to 10-year-olds, some printed with slogans such as ‘wink wink’), and television programs (e.g. a televised fashion show in which adult models in lingerie were presented as young girls).”

I will say that I think adults dressing as children is probably less of an influence on girls’ self-sexualization than the plethora of kid-size adult clothing styles. Years ago, I saw girls at the pool dressed in halter-top swimsuits…with nothing to halter! I see girls in miniskirts, mini cowboy boots, spaghetti-strap tops, mini-heels, the works.

Related: the evolution of girls’ Halloween costumes

film&theatre resumé 2020

Why Retail Sucks: Difference Between the Haves and Havenots

The study of customer service seems primarily reserved to business-oriented, sociological research, or so my database searches would suggest. However, it is certainly a problem for anthropology. Bullying behavior does occur among adults, and notably in the customer-server sphere of interaction.

Jürgen Habermas notes in chapter V of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that as the market has become privatized, businesses became distinct and protectionist; meanwhile, the public sphere experienced “stateification” to the point that the line between public and private became permanently blurred. I believe this blurring accounts for the problems of interaction in the world of customer service: vestigial conflict between public and private, business and consumer, is played out through servers and customers.

According to Habermas, the public service sector was developed to alleviate the imbalance created by increasing social costs upon economic growth (p. 147). This “intervention” also increases tension between oligarchic reality and public consumption. Furthermore, service representatives become the face of an organization to a consumer; their privacy is temporarily suspended, their identity conflated with that of the company or government, for the sake of mediation between disparate levels of production and consumption.

Put simply and applied to contemporary America, state/public agencies and private businesses are often self-contained and run by private individuals, even if the company is publicly owned. Their interests may be at odds with their economic and social costs. They also require the public’s attention. Through public service announcements, advertisements, press releases, and other types of marketing and promotion, they negotiate their relationship to the public. This means that an employee of any type of service establishment is representative of the organization (see p. 153), yet a private person; they interact with the public, which is also comprised of private persons. See the potential for conflict?

Examples: A customer attempts to return an item but is outside the return period set at the executive level. The cashier declines to give the customer money back for fear of losing his job, or having the money taken from his pay. The customer takes the denial personally and insults or bullies the cashier. The cashier defends himself by citing the business’ policy. The customer requests a manager, by whose higher authority is more representative of business interests. The manager is actually more concerned by the business’ interests and fears losing respect, privileges, or even her job if she drives away a customer. She makes an exception to the policy; the customer believes the cashier to be wrong, bullheaded, or just discriminatory by denying the return, but is the only one to walk away feeling resolved.

In addition, the public sphere has devolved from a distinctie sphere of public intereaction into an artifically connected web of private spheres (see pp. 162-64). The extraordinarily wide gap between the producers and consumers contributes to this tension. The closer one gets to the top, the easier to alleviate (hence why customers have learned to call for managers or otherwise escalate the issue). You will see less of the “customer is always right” attitude, although this too has changed from its original conception and has a distinctive American iteration, in smaller or independent businesses.

Although childhood bullying is a more pressing topic in the news, I am fascinated by these tensions and resulting behavior in the public sphere, if only to answer my own questions about how I’ve been treated on the job I worked to support myself through undergraduate to the present. Examples:

  1. A pleasant customer, attempting to make conversation, asked me leading questions about whether I still lived at home, when I graduated high school, and what I liked to do when I wasn’t working. I made the mistake of answering honestly, that I had moved to Gainesville as an adult and had just begun to pursue a Master’s. He suddenly changed in demeanor and said, “Oh, yeah, in what, fish-catching?” [I work in a pet store.] and laughed derisively. I said, “No, anthropology.” He said he didn’t know what that was, glared at me, and was unpleasant for the rest of the encounter.
  2. I get told I “must like working here” several times a week. Yes, told, not asked. Usually this is combined with an overuse of my name (or, if you’re like one customer we have, addressing all employees by the name of our company) and slower-than-normal speech when addressing me.
film&theatre resumé 2020

“Us vs. Them”: How the Media Can Breed Hate and Inequality…or Love and Social Change

As most anthropologists know, the roles that people inhabit and are assigned in society are neither inherent nor permanent. Categories and classes of people are historically built, and change occurs in both membership and definition upon economic changes, new ideologies, or technological development. However, these psychocultural systems and biases are perpetuated through both language and praxis. The labeling hypothesis, developed largely by Erving Goffman, maintains that the connotations, expectations, and implications of a label form the scope of the role inhabited by a person with that label. Moreover, class, racial, sexual, and other distinctions are drawn in part by opposing labels.

The construction of “us vs. them” is accomplished in myriad ways and in almost every social venue. It is done in workplaces, schools, families, and in the public sphere. It is used by politicians and pundits to draw lines between the audience and the party’s opposition. It is used by religious leaders to explain why followers are privileged over the non-believers and the wrong-believers. It is even used by reality show hosts and teen romance writers to divide the audience into two camps who can compete and thus increase viewer- or readership. I would like to briefly review some recent news items to demonstrate how “us” is divided from “them” via the media.

According to Megan Reback of the Women’s Media Center:

More than a decade has passed, yet the deep hatred in the United States of those who practice Islam has not subsided. In fact, the radical right – which has increasingly become part of the GOP’s status quo – has held onto these beliefs both proudly and shamelessly.

Some weeks ago, I confronted startling evidence of this mindset as I disembarked from a Metro North train at the end of my weekday commute to and from New York City. Amid the familiar army of black and navy blue suits eager to join families for dinner, I noticed a stark, black advertisement with red, white, and blue type: “*19,250 DEADLY ISLAMIC ATTACKS SINCE 9/11/01 *AND COUNTING. IT’S NOT ISLAMOPHOBIA, IT’S ISLAMOREALISM.”

According to Mother Jones magazine, the ad and others targeting New York and San Francisco commuters are sponsored by the anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller. She made headlines last year when she backed other ads castigating a proposed Islamic community center near ground zero, calling it a “mega mosque” and a “victory mosque” that celebrated 9/11. … By mid-2010, Geller became a fixture on Fox News, commenting on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the threat of Muslims and Shariah law in the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Geller’s organization, Stop Islamization of America, a hate group.

The anti-Islam ads, however, are not random outliers or radical statements. Instead, they represent a fear and hatred of Muslims and Islam that has been particularly rife of late.

Reback recaps some anti-Islam statements by GOP members and the attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and concludes by characterizing the ad described above as unproblematic except in its reflection and perpetuation of hate by a major political party. Which is a pretty big problem, to say the least. The ad’s language is hard to deny, as well. Even a person ignorant of the details but who still gets nauseous thinking of 9/11 would see that statistic, consider its impact, and be more inclined to think of Muslims as dangerous, violent people. The pejoration is done very simply, over repeated exposure to these blanket statements that play on the emotions. This is the entire purpose of rhetoric.

Here’s a more mundane example:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iuG1OpnHP8?rel=0]

Women don’t enjoy this military action movie because it is “our” movie. And this is “our” drink. The us-them division couldn’t be more clear. This ad plays on stereotypes of movie and drink preferences to (over)compensate for the suggestion—already socially constructed—that a low-calorie drink is feminine. The ad ends by proudly exclaiming that women could keep their “romantic comedies and lady drinks,” because Dr. Pepper Ten is a low-calorie drink that’s appropriate for men.

Of course, these ads are very plain in their intent. The anti-Islam ad was clearly intended to incite anger towards a group of people deemed “other,” in an attempt to curry favor for a particular group of organizations. The Dr. Pepper Ten was clearly intended to be ridiculous enough to sell a product. However, its affirmation of gender stereotypes is distressing in an era where women are earning more and more yet comprise 17% of Congress, are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood, and are at risk for domestic violence, which encompasses a range of crimes that number, in reported cases in Florida alone, in the thousands.

We also cannot ignore the rhetorical power of non-advertising visual media. Stories are excellent vehicles for ideology and both tools and venues for social construction as the audience absorbs, reacts with, and retells the story. In 1998, “Will & Grace” popularized the first flamboyant gay characters on television. Unfortunately, the gay comic relief became somewhat of a trope, repeated endlessly on various sitcoms or on dramedies such as “Sex and the City.” A new class of “homosexual person” had been formed, and while the likable characters, their unrealism stood in stark contrast to news reports of various violent or pedophilic acts by gay men, encouraged by and conflated with anti-gay campaigns by conservative and/or religious outfits.

Eventually non-flamboyant gay characters featured on longer-form shows that allowed for character development, including “Glee” and “Modern Family.” Now, as though to trumpet the progress of positive gay representation in entertainment television, NBC’s “The New Normal” has hit the small screen, and follows the lives of a gay male couple exploring their options for children. Unfortunately, the rhetorical intent of the production, however important, may not be as salient as the symbolic content, which involves a certain exoticization (“them!”), explains Frank Bua of The Huffington Post:

[M]any of the show’s generalizations are likely more damaging than entertaining: Gays are wealthy, materialistic effetes with crazy disposable income. Gay men randomly wake up and decide that they want a child as the latest must-have accessory. Prospective parents look through a catalog of egg donors like they are recruiting for the HJ. A gay couple? One part effeminate man-boy, the other part a football-watching handsome dude

While Bua bemoans the show’s shortcomings, it is nonetheless clear that social change is happening, more visibly and perhaps more quickly, thanks to mass and entertainment media. Furthermore, each of these examples should demonstrate why studying the media is so revelatory of the process of construction; the understanding of these processes allows us to deconstruct enough to put the spare bits towards change. If we want it.

film&theatre resumé 2020

Go On, Get Cultured: Big-T Theatre vs. little-T (movie) theatre

I once went with a friend to see a production of Proof at my university’s theatre. I was a student there and worked both in the shop and on the production crew for productions. Like any theatre geek, I had read and seen many plays both for study and entertainment purposes. My friend, however, rarely went to the theatre, opera, or concert hall; she consumed many movies and TV shows and listened to music on her iPod. Yet she expressed a desire to accompany me to the theatre.

After the play, which is a highly intellectual and emotional drama, she emerged not with comments on the philosophical themes of the play but with the simple statement: “I loved it! I feel cultured now.”

Before you walk away thinking my friend was not too bright, let’s consider the importance of the play in her mind: as a “cultural” experience that was somehow distinctive from all the rest of the cultural products she absorbed. She referred to the movies, TV shows, and music as part of her “lifestyle” or for the purpose of “relaxing.” It is odd to consider that theatre was once such an escapist medium, and moreover a social opportunity. While there was a certain social hierarchy in the Globe that was expressed in the seating, it was simple entertainment for all audience members. And prior to that theatre had a religious purpose or was laced with philosophical themes…and prior to that it was alternately “smart” entertainment, soapy drama, or frothy comic goodness.

What had happened to theatre, then, that it is now, to some people, a specific and limited opportunity for “culture”? My friend, despite her massive consumption of popular culture, did not consider herself as “cultured” before seeing the play as after. Yet she did not say she felt “more” cultured. This suggests that she felt “cultured” as a direct effect of seeing a play…a relatively exotic medium to her.

As both a theatre geek and a film buff, I have seen duplicated over and over certain snobbery or ignorance on both sides. To some playgoers, theatre remains the one true dramatic art; to some filmgoers, the theatre is archaic and limited. And to some, the experience of the two is conflated, and the differences misunderstood: I am not entirely convinced that no one assumes that stage actors cannot hear or see their audience, hence their lack of decorum.

Yet one can speak of a certain intimacy and authenticity to the theatre experience. Indeed, Walter Benjamin, in a chapter of his Illuminations entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” observes that a stage actor more directly imparts the “aura” (his word for the original yet transient essence of an idea, character, or artifact) to the viewer than a film actor, who does so through the processes of filming and subsequent cutting and printing. This makes theatre a more authentic art…and while many filmmakers, scholars, and fans today might disagree with any suggestion that film is inauthentic, the different social constructions of playgoing versus moviegoing suggest something.

I propose that the difference stems from film’s capacity for duplication, dissemination, and destruction. A movie we’ve seen, we may purchase a copy, recommend to a friend, or simply forget if we don’t care for it. Indeed, I would venture that most movies are forgotten, not even included in the “canon” built by film critics and scholars, but retained simply as a product by their distributors. Their eternity is belied by their phosphorescence. Plays, on the other hand, stem from texts and are then wholly reproduced again and again; they are long-lived despite any given iteration being seen only once by most of their viewers. Their eternity is bought by their transience.

Or, in simpler terms, people can easily take a movie and make it their own; they can view in any room, in any state, with anyone. They have not submitted to a communal experience with strangers, nor been immersed in a fake world. It’s easier to forget you’re not in 19th-century France, for example, when you can see only a representation of that world, than if you’re able to see the edges of the giant screen showing you a series of controlled images with popcorn in your hand.

So in the end, I couldn’t fault my friend for finding the theatre exotic. It’s honestly the reason I return to it year after year. Sometimes you grow weary of the iPod, the Netflix, the Hulu, and the Kindle, or even of your comfy chair or couch and your big-screen TV. In those times, you may retreat to the theatre, the opera house, or the concert hall and soak in the authentic arts, just to get a little “culture” in you.

film&theatre resumé 2020

Thanksgiving…let’s be thankful we’re the best country in the world

It is commonly taught and widely believed that Thanksgiving is the anniversary of a feast between the Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1621, and the native population. Yet many of us know by now that the first such feast didn’t take place in 1621, let alone on the last Thursday of November. In fact, there are multiple instances of great celebrations held by groups of wearied settlers in different parts of the country.

The Thanksgiving feast is constructed as a peaceful alliance among people of different races celebrating their wealth and common blessings. Yet the Pilgrim settlers, along with all other groups of settlers, have a complicated history with the Native Americans. The Wampanoag suffered a population drop after contracting leptospirosis from earlier settlers, and in an attempted alliance with the Pilgrims, signed over significant lands to them. Their alliance proved fruitful in the Wampanoag’s struggles with the Narragansett. Thus one could say that Thanksgiving, if attributed to the feast in 1621, is in a sense a celebration of alliance, but certainly not of peace. Which begs the question: how many holidays, rituals, and artifacts meant to bring or celebrate peace and understanding really promote cultural dominance or ethnocentrism, or honor instances of genocide or conquest? Do we equate pacifism with the absence of violence, or compassion with the absence of criticism or missionary activity?

Like most incidents in American history, the first Thanksgiving has taken on new meaning in the repetition that established it as an American tradition. It doesn’t specifically emphasize America or the dominant culture, if there is one, and doesn’t relate to a specific incident in which America or Americans won or otherwise reigned supreme. However, that it is contextualized in this alliance between Pilgrims and Wampanoag, certainly informs our meanings system that is activated upon Thanksgiving. Dysfunctional families force themselves to eat together in the name of  togetherness, good neighbors open their tables to the weak and hungry, and speeches are made about cultural acceptance and working together to improve the world. Why this is so, I cannot say without further research, but I suspect that, over generations, this incident of peace between settlers and natives has been heightened to downplay the subsequent offenses by settlers against natives. Yet that the alliance was temporary and allowed the Pilgrims to easily take over native lands upon declining Wampanoag population, is neither compassionate nor violent, but certainly not an act of cultural acceptance.

film&theatre resumé 2020

Thanksgiving, the Celebration of Consumerism and Cultural Dominance

I don’t meant to smash Thanksgiving as it means to a lot of people: a time for families and friends to gather and give thanks for each other and for their good fortune. However, in a weak economy with ever-increasing Black Friday sales and store hours, Thanksgiving has become the National Shopping Holiday, second only to the Saturday before Christmas, according to the data since 2002*. Last year 212 million people went shopping on Black Friday, well above predictions of 138 million and above the previous year’s turnout of 195 million, and total spent on Friday alone was $10.66 billion, for an average of $50.28 per shopper. The total spending for the whole post-Thanksgiving weekend 2010 was $41.2 billion; that’s $365.34 per shopper. Although not every holiday shopper shops post-Thanksgiving weekend, it suggests if not proves the focus of holiday shopping on Black Friday to note that the average amount spent during the entire 2010 holiday season was $112.20. This year the annual NRF survey reports an expected 152 million planning to shop tomorrow (they will provide data from this year’s event on Nov. 27), and an anticipated $130.43 per shopper (see also here).

Here in Gainesville, people had begun camping by Wednesday morning outside the Best Buy, presumably for the Sharp 42″ HDTV selling for $200. Similar stakeouts are happening round the country.

Black Friday has its dangers; most notably, the 2008 death of an employee at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart in Nassau, who died of asphyxia after being stampeded by hordes of shoppers. The incident triggered a lawsuit and an OSHA investigation, with Wal-Mart insisting they were not culpable. The company ended up settling and spending more on good publicity and donations than it would have for a fine. Additional info here.

While deaths by Black Friday is certainly not a leading cause of death around the holidays, it is common for both employees and shoppers to experience injuries. The national shock over the Valley Stream death prompted many to curse the frantic shoppers for giving way to a herd mentality or being willing to harm others for their own’s sake. Normally I am more cynical and willing to dismiss humans as, after all, animals, but as anthropology teaches us, humans are an animal that lives in a constructed world. Observers of herds of perisso- and artiodactyla or groups of rodents traveling in large groups might surmise, as several fall off cliffs or stumble, that herding is a blind activity in which all participants have lost a sense of self-preservation or and ability to calculate movement and speed necessary to manuever obstacles. And yet a human crowd is nothing like a herd of wildebeest. When wildebeest and other creatures move in a herd, they are identifying similar creatures and improving their chances of survival by staying in a crowd large enough to defend against would-be predators, and navigating changes in the landscape as a large, fluid group. Humans, however, pick focal points and move towards  them. Cultural predisposition towards moving on the right side of a landscape or the left determine some patterns of crowd movement, but humans don’t navigate according to groups. This is why crowds can easily reach a crush point; the masses, unable to adapt to the shape of a landscape, bottleneck themselves or push into a barrier, and do not leave safe distance between themsleves and others. The bigger the crowd and the smaller the space, the more likely it is that people will die in the crowd (and of asphyxia, not being crushed), because humans are extremely reliant on artifacts as landmarks in their visual field, and apply an understanding of a basic shape from memory (think of those line illusions you saw in grade school). So a mass of shoppers will orient themselves towards big glass doors, the sight of tall shelves and big signs, or any available open space, and when all rush towards these things, injuries occur.

This is hardly the fault of shoppers or even retailers. Once the practice of Black Friday sales began, it perpetuates itself despite the dangers because it manages to escape its self-destruction. Rather than avoid attending the sales because of the dangers, shoppers brace themselves by getting there as early as possibly (3 days early sometimes!), using carts as buffers, and occasionally becoming defensive to the point of physical aggression (just YouTube Black Friday to see some of this violence). They do this not because they are selfish, animalistic, or evil, but because the ethos of a consumeristic culture emphasize bargain-hunting, obtaining valuable objects, and boosting the economy.

More on the cultural dominance aspects of Thanksgiving later…

* With one exception; see source here.

Related:

Shoppers should put purchases into perspective

NRF predictions for 2011

Fewer plan to shop on Black Friday 2011

film&theatre resumé 2020

Fountains Are Silly

n. fountain: a soothing or exciting spray of water upward from a body of water for aesthetic and relaxation reasons

Fountains are so ubiquitous that they have become part of our landscape schema…we might not notice that they’re there, but we would notice if they’re gone, from malls, universities, hospitals, doctor’s offices, hotels, government buildings, and conference centers. We would notice if they were placed somewhere like a daycare center, a Wal-Mart, or a public park. And why are they not there?

Fountains were a common decorative feature in ancient Rome, and have continued to be so. However, they have taken on an added dimension of promoting relaxation and contemplation. And yet fountains are expensive. Why do we need an expensive spray of water to relax? According to structuration theory, the practices of installing fountains, upon repetition, creates a structure, which could be social or mental, through which fountains become expected or required. My guess is that the rules for when and where fountains “should be” stem from the common function of the places they tend to be…places where a lot of money is spent. Fountains are, appropriately, a sign of decadence and wealth. Wouldn’t you rather cut an important business deal at a conference center with a fountain that costs the same amount of money the deal is for? Or go to a hospital that can afford the best staff and equipment because clearly they have enough to blow on a fountain?

film&theatre resumé 2020

The Misanthropologist Descends

My experiences as an American and my training as a cultural anthropologist have led me to one conclusion: People suck. It’s become custom among modern anthropologists to emphasize cultural relativism and downplay dogma-based assessments of morality and worthiness, but let’s face it: People suck. Human beings are notoriously selfish, overpreoccuppied with their own immortality, stuck in their heads to the point of complete exclusion from physical reality, and kill each other not for reasons of survival, competition over mates (usually), or food, but because of beliefs in abstractions.

So why study anthropology? Because it explains so much of human behavior, which, let’s face it, is usually perplexing even to the most open-minded and compassionate individual.  Americans in particular are subject to perhaps the most damning of questions, “Who are we?” simply on account of our multiethnic history and our unprecedented reliance on technology and digital personas. So can honest self-exploration of our human flaws help us break free? That is the purpose of this blog. More to come….

The study of anthropology enables us to understand why people treat us the way they do, what we can do to be better, and what we can do to improve the world. Anthropology is, after all, in part, the pitting of neurosis against guilt. It is necessary for self-understanding, to understand the cultural sources of our behavior and the scope of our behavior in the grand scheme of human activity (hint: we tend to believe it’s more than we say it is).