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Ethnography Photography of the Wild West [PHOTOBLOG]


Check out this gallery of photographs by photojournalist Timothy O’Sullivan, who documented the interactions among settlers and Native Americans in the Old West. O’Sullivan’s ethnographic style and eye for detail are impressive, and most importantly, he made an important effect to be authentic:

O’Sullivan was famous for not trying to romanticise the native American plight or way of life in his photographs and instead of asking them to wear tribal dress was happy to photograph them wearing denim jeans.

Image from Dailymail.co.uk
via The American West as you’ve never seen it before: Amazing 19th century pictures show the landscape as it was chartered for the first time | Mail Online.

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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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The Internet vs. the Studios in the Success and Marketability of Movies

In the golden age of Hollywood, movie producers were largely responsible for obtaining funding and personnel for productions; within the confines of the studio system and without a big-name producer (or a member of the United Artists), a screenplay would rarely be realized into a movie. From the mid-1940s to the present, the output of independent filmmakers has increased tremendously, and the dissolution of the studio system allowed more people to break into the industry; films produced independently could even be distributed by a major studio.

Sadly, the same thing has not happened for television. There, producers are still largely responsible for creative output; a pilot script must be pitched to network executives, if not coming from within the company, and production remains in the company’s hands. Worse, a show’s success is largely determined by Nielsen ratings, an increasingly flawed measure of consumption (and, implicit in sustained numbers, enjoyment).

Naturally, with the rise of video publishing websites and social networks, there are a number of Web shows that are independently produced and distributed. Some, like “The Guild,” are highly acclaimed and well-suited to their medium.

There have been a few experiments in crossover: in 2008, during the writers’ strike, producer Joss Whedon went indie with “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” After streaming as a web mini-series, the show was distributed by iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, and eventually on DVD through Amazon.com and New Video Group. This summer, the show was picked up for rerelease on the The CW network. Despite high consumption online and in DVD sales, the rating for the broadcast, on Oct. 9, 2012, was a paltry 566,000 viewers. While it may be said that fans of the show already had digital or hard copies and didn’t need to tune in, it’s more likely that “Dr. Horrible” was simply more suited to viral distribution. It does raise questions about the marketability of network TV shows in the reverse direction.

Or for that matter, of studio projects to viewers before their production. Acclaimed director David Fincher is attempting to recruit the media-hungry Internet masses to an avenue traditionally not open to the public: funding a movie production. Unable to get studio backing for an adaptation of The Goon and unable to fund it himself, Fincher has turned to Kickstarter to crowdsource the funds:

So far the project has just shy of 2,500 backers raising about $162,000 with 19 days left to raise the funds. In response to the question of why Fincher does not just fund it himself, Miller said: “Hollywood is filled with the ‘vanity projects’ of successful movie stars and producers. It really is not as easy to get a film made no matter who you are.”

If Fincher succeeds, the line between the studio-made and the homegrown will be irreversibility blurred. TV, however, remains firmly stratified.

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Retail Hell: Blame Privatization

Cross-posted on class blog, Misanthropologist.

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.
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Anthropology: the Professional, the Philosophical, and the Practical

When I tell people I am studying anthropology, I quite frequently get one of these responses:

  • “So you dig up pots?”
  • “So you study dead people?”
  • “So you look for dinosaur bones?” (yes, really)

It is probably most indicative of a highly professionalized culture, in which disciplinary alignment rarely intersects with job title, that the term “anthropologist” means little to people, but smacks of something archaic enough that people assume its subject is necessarily archaic as well. It’s also partly due to the paucity of anthropologist characters in popular films and TV shows who vaguely resemble real anthropologists (i.e. not many of the hapless characters in scifi flicks on whom the writers have slapped a random scientist label—hello, Prometheus). And the few that exist, of course, engage in wildly unusual quests and work in exotic or hyper-nerdy locations: Temperance Brennan, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon (symbologist…?).

An anthropology major is number 15 on a list of the majors with the highest unemployment (link).* It doesn’t sound too bad until you review a list of majors at major universities. (here’s my school’s). I wonder if the increasing gap between academia and job placement for the social sciences is at least partly due to a misunderstanding of anthropology. How many jobs have I been turned down for because someone thought I looked at things in the ground? (Hence my necessary return to school.)

Anthropology has a long and, sadly, somewhat sketchy history. It wasn’t until the late 19th century and the likes of Lewis Henry Morgan and John Wesley Powell that anthropology began to be a matter of ethnology, not armchair anthropology of the exotic, nor evolutionist comparative biological anthropology. Later, the blooming generations of Boasian anthropologists began to work for various government agencies, such as the Bureau for Indian Affairs. This was a good moment to be an anthropologist, if only because their insights into other cultures proved useful in native negotiations and in war time (e.g., The Chrysanthemum and the Sword).

In the postmodernist 1980s in America, a new hyper-relativist, activist trend emerged in anthropology that marked the final phase of anthropology in the job market. We had gone from the self-assured, racist, positivist ethnographer, to the state-sanctioned, exoticist, empirical ethnologist, to the doubtful, self-reflective, cultural detectives. Bolstered by people like George Marcus and Michael Fischer, anthropology in the postmodernist flavor, like the literature and philosophy of the time, questioned everything in order to answer a few things, and managed to insult American sensibilities (both anthropologists and non-anthropologists) in the meantime. It’s my guess that this trend greatly affected attitudes towards anthropology in laypeople, such as my religious, conservative aunt, who once railed against political correctness and expected acceptance of “sinful” lifestyles thanks to anthropologists (without having asked me what I was studying in school). It probably also contributed to a characterization of anthropologists as weird or even non-cultured (like Bones, who has little psychocultural connection to the society in which she lives).

Fact is, in an increasingly globalized yet politicized world, in which most people have anywhere from an occasional to a constant connection to global markets of information and products, it’s more important than ever to understand modern anthropology’s fundamental question: why we do the things we do. The same question permeates all fields of anthropology and gives us a scientific yet practical approach to all pursuits. It may not be reflected in the resumés that land on the hiring manager’s desk, or in curricular requirements in universities, or in popular culture, but the ability to reflect on one’s own behavior and their society, to imagine oneself in another’s shoes, to communicate efficiently with someone of a different walk, and to understand the purpose of one’s own and others’ actions, can benefit people in those top-hired areas—business, medical, education—as well as people in the supposedly unhireable majors of art, architecture, liberal arts, humanities, and history.

After all, anthropology is the study of humanity, and last time I checked, every aspect of your  life involves just that.

* Doesn’t look too good in this breakdown either.

Resources:

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Bookblog: Teenage Mystique + Entitlement = ??

I’d propose the answer is bullying, although the equation is of course not that simple. My private research has suffered a little recently as I’ve been preoccupied with rehearsals for “Hamlet” at the ART and with the neverending funding search for my upcoming study at UF. However, I’ve been able to keep up with a sprawling, if a little dry, overview of the cultural construction of the adolescent, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, by Thomas Hine.

With a core thesis that teenagers are not an inherent division of the human life cycle (not that there are any), Hine, primarily a historian and greatly influenced by Erik Erikson, takes us on a journey through America from the Puritans to the Millenials, tracing the development and alteration of the teenage persona in accordance with the sociocultural, psychosocial, and political factors of the times. As discussed by Jean Twenge, the children of the baby boomers were taught an attitude of entitlement. But boomers themselves never would have imparted that ethos were they not themselves the product of a blossoming teenage “character” seeded by the post-Industrial Revolution and spurred by 1920s pop culture. Moreover, this new age group had little to do with the creation of the high school, although that institution became not only the venue but the instrument of the eventually exclusive youth culture.

I do not have time at the moment to discuss Hine’s illuminating stories and incisive historical analysis, but even before my thoughts have finished coalescing, it seems apparent that the necessary separation of a heterogeneous high school from working society, combined with entitlement, has not only enabled the spoiling of Americans who are excluded from the labor force, but the cementing of a youth culture that is so long divided from the real world that it never truly leaves the real world.

Wow, lotta long sentences tonight. I guess I’m in a flow mood.

This bookblog to be continued. Then I begin reading the work of foremost bullying expert Barbara Coloroso.

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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.