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The Persistent Role of Superstition

In Michael Shermer’s groundbreaking book Why People Believe Weird Things, he explores different realms of superstitious beliefs as they connect to religion or conspiracy. Shermer points out that these beliefs prevail because they support ideologies that in turn connect to power systems.

So, superstitious rituals usually hinge on concepts of self-identity and place in society. After all, many such rituals, such as knocking on wood, are far removed from their Celtic origins. Rather, they’re a mild form of performance art, a means of expressing one’s status and conscientiousness, as well as demonstrating social graces. After all, it’s rude to not say “bless you” after someone sneezes.

Read the full version of this post on Medium.

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Anti-Bullying March for Day of Peace

Believe it or not, for someone so socially conscious and politically active, I’ve never participated in a rally. Today’s Day of Peace rally was glorious. From the incredible music by Be More Heroic members to the chants and cheers of both humans and their dogs at Bo Diddley Plaza to the adorable skits done by students at my research school, Duval Elementary, today’s event was A+! I wore a shirt bearing words such as “slut” and “nerd” and carried a sign that read, “Words DO hurt me.” I was interviewed by a local paper, which was nice, but most of all, I got to see firsthand the passion and joy that stirs the hearts of those who speak for compassion and peace. Let’s face it, those people who rally for hate just don’t have that same joy.

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Nailed the Interactive Art Show!!

Friday was an incredible night. I have run a combined variety/art show and an interactive art show at the Civic Media Center in the past year. I was striving for a perfect blend of art showing, performances, interaction, and donation. I wanted to give artists an opportunity to show their work in a rich environment. I named this event The MageArt Experience, in acknowledgement of the real magic that art provides, both in its production and perception.

I finally got the right formula for this show, and brewed up a delicious artistic blend. We benefited from Gainesville’s Artwalk crowd, and our participating artists brought incredible energy and beauty. We had guests contributing to the collaborative canvas, purchasing art, and watching the performers with full attention.

With this show under my belt, I think that CerridwenWorks is well on its way to nonprofit status.

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Cultural Exchange through the Movies (LINK)

Americans may feel privileged to have such access to films and television. Indeed, we’ve reached (perhaps even surpassed) a saturation point in entertainment media. What we forget is that audiovisual media is a major cultural conduit—or rather a network of connective fibers that generate and shape our social consciousness—and its immersive qualities are well suited to cultural exchange. A few months ago, I attended a screening on campus of a film about HIV, filmed and produced by the Datoga in partnership with anthropologists. The film is particularly ethnographic in a grassroots sort of way, in that its target audience elected its own informants, those the community deemed trustworthy, and used prevailing cultural symbols and expressions to communicate the often Western-centric rhetoric of HIV/AIDS awareness. (The film is here.) The idea of a shared cultural consciousness permeating its works was a hallmark of Straussian structuralist anthropology, but in a post-postmodernist age, the understanding of the lattice effect of structure, ritual, symbol, and ethos has proved particularly fruitful in applied visual anthropology. While the Datoga project was an example of applied visual ethnography, with an explicit educational purpose, a recent NYTimes article discussed the approach from a different standpoint: culturally applied filmmaking.

What [the Iraqi filmmakers] definitely don’t have at home is a film industry, something being addressed, at least to a degree, by the nonprofit International Film Exchange. The exchange brought the students over from Baghdad where, several weeks before, the filmmaker Bill Megalos of Los Angeles had conducted a 10-day workshop on storytelling and editing. The exchange is devoted primarily to cultural give and take and international understanding. But in the case of the Iraqis, it may help create a base of knowledgeable filmmakers, a “crew” as the young men themselves called it. Since the economic sanctions imposed after the first gulf war, making films in Iraq has become all but impossible.

“It was my family business,” said the bearish Salam S. Mazeel, 35, whose mother was a sound designer, and who wants to be a cinematographer like his father. “But in the ’90s, everything stopped. We go to the hard times. No money, no hope.”

After his father died, his mother quit the business to raise her children; there was no cinema anyway. “That’s how it was,” Mr. Mazeel said. “Now, maybe something is different and we come to America and there are a few things in our minds. Like how to apply American rules to Iraqi movies.”

The article goes on to discuss how Iraqi films could take a cue from Hollywood movies and move away from the previous emphasis on style that European cinema demonstrates:

Years ago, Iraqi filmmakers would regularly attend VGIK, the Moscow film school; Iraqi film was influenced far more by European than American cinema. In Los Angeles, the Iraqi visitors were being advised by almost everyone to make their stories clear, to emphasize narrative over style.

That’s an interesting thing, considering the woefully incomplete or slapdash plots seen in much Hollywood fare. But truth be told, the expressionistic, avant-garde philosophy, seen in Soviet cinema and developed in later German and French films, has been relegated to the indie circuit in the U.S., the fortress of solitude for disillusioned American film buffs. The interest in plot in the United States derives partly from the well-made tradition that was popular in Britain and the U.S. around the same time the film industry was developing, and partly, I believe, from a capitalist ethos. But that’s a topic for another blog.

What’s intriguing about Megalos’ workshop for Iraqi filmmakers is its prescriptive purpose. It is a shade of the cultural imperialism the U.S. holds around the world. Are our films successful overseas because of their effective narratives, as the article suggests? Or because of the corollary economic influence? And films are products, as we know. Moreover, after congratulating ourselves on bringing democracy and peace to Iraq (at least for a moment or two), it seems an echo to claim artistic benefits to them as well.

However, the infusion of the Iraqi filmmakers’ films with their distinctive ethos, under the auspices of Hollywood economic,  political, and aesthetic structures, is not only the product, but the method, of cultural exchange. It is a new kind of ethnographic filmmaking, in which the individuals’ culture is writ large through collaborative works, nestled within a historical portrait of fluctuating, overlapping sociocultural conditions. It is why films are of interest to anthropologists, and why anthropologists continue to use films to communicate ideas. It is probably clear to the International Film Exchange; thanks to the U.S.’s economic power, Hollywood has the tools of the trade to empower all filmmaking cultures, with the end goal being understanding of humanity, not imperialism.

 

Related: Activist Filmmaking

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The Impossible: How Important Is Ethnicity in “True Story” Films? (LINK)

The Oscar-nominated The Impossible has received a lot of flak for casting white British actors in the story of a Spanish family who experienced the 2004 tsunami while on vacation in Thailand. Accusations of racism, disinterest, and simply lack of trying have been hurled at the (Spanish) production team. According to this article on HuffPost,

Though perhaps seemingly a bit harsh, the real answer might not be that far off. When asked by the Spanish daily El Mundo about the reason why he didn’t cast Spanish actors for his film, Bayona admits it all came down to one factor: money.

“I would have loved to tell this story with Spanish actors. We tried, but it proved impossible to raise funding without international actors. The first version of the screenplay was written in Spanish and then we realized that 80% of the dialogue was also in English. So it was natural that we chose European actors who speak English. But, without revealing the nationality of the protagonists. This is not a film of nationality, race or social class. All that was swept by the wave,” the director said.

Once again we see the conflict between marketing needs and cultural realism. Is the film dishonest or harmful for using white actors, in particular British actors, considering that the tsunami affected areas formerly part of the British Empire? How different would the film have been if Spanish actors had been cast? Is it possibly to successfully promote a film in an international market using unknown (read:non-white) actors? I would note that The Life of Pi did not turn its main character white.

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The Role of Competition in American Movies (LINK)

This short essay on Sociological Images discusses a trope in American film. As a capitalistic society, one would expect themes of competition and conquest to dominate our culture. Interesting, isn’t it, how the predestined fate of the tragic hero has been supplanted by the possibility for absolution, based upon social conquest?

 In British films of the sixties – “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or “This Sporting Life” for example – athletic contests bring a heightened consciousness of the class system.  But in American movies, regardless of the setting – the boxing ring, the pool hall, the poker game, the karate dojo, the dance floor, etc. – competition works its magic and allows the heroes to overcome all personal and interpersonal problems.

via The Role of Competition in American Movies » Sociological Images.

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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

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Photography and Making Meanings

Currently at UF’s Harn Museum of Art is the wonderful  “Modern Impulse” photography exhibition. It’s a stunning collection of beautiful, sometimes disturbing images from America and Europe between WWI and WWII. This was a period of great creativity in the medium; photography shifted from being a means of documentation to an avenue of expression. The work of the featured Czech artists, especially Josef Sudek, is particularly lovely and fascinating; their manipulation of the camera makes one rue the concept of “snapshot.” The collection demonstrates how social meanings were shared, deconstructed, and reconstituted in this period, especially in the images of unsafe factory conditions, segregated public buildings, and homelessness. The raw, emotional work of Walker Evans, featured in the show, causes the eye to linger.

Photography became a means of social change in this era, and has continued to mediate meanings and inspire activism to the present day. Consider the work of Pieter Hugo, Sebastião Salgado, and Manuel Rivera-Ortiz, in addition to filmmakers like the late Tim Hetherington.

The Harn collection also features the gorgeous work of Group f/64, who championed unedited, naturally lit photographs as expressions of truth. (Hm, would Walter Benjamin agree?)

Additional reading:

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Intellectual Discussion, Smart Entertainment…Dead and Gone?

Check out this stirring article on the death of theatregoing culture and the rise of new media. A couple of excerpts.

Film culture, at least in the sense people once used that phrase, is dead or dying. Back in what we might call the Susan Sontag era, discussion and debate about movies was often perceived as the icy-cool cutting edge of American intellectual life. Today it’s a moribund and desiccated leftover that’s been cut off from ordinary life, from the mainstream of pop culture and even from what remains of highbrow or intellectual culture.

One could argue that, in our era of consumer capitalism, films have been revealed as manufactured commodities rather than works of art, and people root for certain film franchises or producers or studios in the same way they root for Apple over Samsung, GM over Ford, or the Red Sox over the Yankees.

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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.