Dinner for One–The World’s Most Frequently Broadcast Film!

We spent the 2nd Day of Christmas (December 26) at the home of German friends. There I was asked what I thought about the film “Dinner for One,” a film where a 90 year-old woman is served a birthday dinner by her butler. I’d never hear of it. Turns out it is an 11 minute long British film (in English) from the 1960s which has something of a cult-following in Germany, as well as a few other northern European countries. As a result, it holds a Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most frequently broadcast film—apparently it is better known than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It has never been broadcast in the US or UK, though. If you don’t believe me, check out The German news magazine Spiegel‘s story here. Or, better yet, you too can join the cult, and see the film on You Tube here.
I will admit to not generally getting the “British humor” of the film (or for that matter Monty Python). But so it goes. I am assured that anyone that likes Monty Python will be rolling on the floor over this film. The really interesting thing is that such an English film could become so popular in a country where English is not the home language!

The Verb “To Chill”

Most Americans know of the common English slang „to chill.“ It is clearly a verb, and used to describe teenagers what teenagers do when they go somewhere together. My understanding of chilling is that it is something you do with friends, it is unplanned, and you do low key sort of things like lie on a couch, talk, watch videos, play games, and eat doritos.

My daughter Kirsten came home from her German school yesterday to tell me that she had learned a new adjective at school “chillig” which is a borrowing from English of the word “to chill” but with the German adjectival ending making it into the English equivalent of “chill-ish.”. What is more she said, the kids were talking about the best club in town which not only is chillig, but the chilligstes (i.e. the German superlative form, making it into the English equivalent of “most chill-ish”) club in town.

This defied Kirsten’s sense of American teenage propriety. Dance clubs are great, she pointed out, but there is no way that you can chill at them. They are just too noisy and active.

Home for the Holidays

The Arrival Scene is a trope of classic anthropological literature. In invoking the beginning of the anthropologist’s journey among a specific people, a specific landscape is invariably described. Doing so is more than an attempt to hook the reader—writing these scenes also hooks the anthropologist back into the field experience. That moment, conjured in narrative, when the anthropologist is confronted with the people and place they have decided to make familiar, is also when the anthropologist begins their attempt to feel at home in an unfamiliar place.

That sense of home is often invoked in fiction as well. Narrators return home after long journeys away. Narrators flee home, vowing never to return. Home can have positive or negative connotations, but the intuitive feel of the landscape called “home” saturates our imaginings and actual experiences. The smell of the air in a particular season, the intimate knowledge of a street’s history, both architectural and personal, the layers of personal experience all contribute to an intuitive feel for a place, an instant rapport between an individual and a landscape. One can look at a lake, a street, a building, a very old tree, and see alongside them the experiences of one’s lifetime, and the lifetimes of others. In addition, one can know without even walking further what lies beyond that lake, inside that building, up in that tree, because that knowledge, too, came from living in that landscape.

Anthropologists traditionally equated the land with a people, a tradition since much complicated by the attention paid to migration and globalization, among other processes. To understand the people meant taking on the meanings embedded in landscape. Even nomadic people had seasonal rounds in consistent places each year. When one grows up in one place, one acquires effortlessly the layers of meaning that anthropologists work so hard to incompletely comprehend.

People who grow up in one particular home can speak of a place being “in their blood,” using a somatic metaphor for how completely they associate their personal history with a place. Home saturates their senses, so that they do not have to think consciously about how to get around, for instance—and it is occasionally difficult to describe how to get from one place to another to an outsider, so taken-for-granted is their knowledge of place. The insider, at home, simply does, knows, feels—this is not a mystical process, or a genetic phenomenon, but is a by-product of all of those years of practice.

I did not have that experience of growing up in one place. My intimate, sensory associations are scattered across the southern and western United States, thanks to my father’s career in the US Air Force. I have, therefore, felt distanced from the experiences that many of my friends have of a nostalgia for “home.” Home, for me, was people. It was not a place.

But now I get it. I lived, through a conspiracy of circumstances, in the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. My recent move to the Southeastern US was a welcome move to new opportunities, but I left a network of friends and experiences behind. How much I left behind was recently brought home (ha) to me in October. I was back in the Bay Area for less than a week, and as soon as I got off the plane in Oakland, all was familiar. I knew exactly where I was going. I did not have to consult any maps. The air smelt “right” for October. All of the things that I have to check and double-check in my new home, the places that I’m not sure of yet because I haven’t been there, all of the references to Yahoo maps, none of that was necessary. The landscape was saturated with all that I had done there for 15 years. It was stunning.

I love my new home. I look forward to getting the opportunity to layer this landscape with new experiences, so that my presence in the landscape becomes intuitive and intimate, just as it was in the Bay Area. What is nice for me is that I realize that it can be done. The Bay Area was not the “home” I grew up in—it became home because I was there for so long.

I plan to be where I am for a long, long time. And the day that it feels completely like home is somewhere, not too far off, in my future.

Will consult for food

I have not been posting much recently. This is because I have been laying the plans to leave my current position at Jump Associates at the end of January to start a new path far away from the business of design and strategy. I have noticed I need a radical career change every 8 to 10 years. I am going to be doing a bit of independent consulting before my next gig. If I suddenly start posting a lot, you will know the independent thing is not going so well!

In the meantime, my co-editor Cindy will lead Ethnography.com to new heights (or at least more readers) in my absence. Donna, Tony and Jennifer.. write! Write like the wind!!!

Teaching Tales (Episode II)

That’s right – I changed my unit of analysis from a “part” to an “episode.” Those of you who teach, especially in the world of small, highly interactive classrooms full of undergraduates, will understand that the experience is enough like a sitcom to warrant the analogy.

Today’s episode took place in my senior capstone Anthropological Theory seminar during the final class meeting. We were munching on local delicacies such as shrimp tacos, carnitas tortas, and enchiladas verde, when students asked me to talk more about “that HTS controversy” and the AAA’s. (Although I could tell that this was somewhat of a cheap attempt to get relief from talking about reading they hadn’t quite completed, the food made me weak, and I went along with the diversion.)

What followed was an interesting little discussion about anthropological involvement in World War II, Vietnam and other South East Asian military campaigns, metanarratives, identity, ethics, personal responsibility, and agency/structure as mediated through practice (I can fit that last one into any conversation – just try me).

The tone in the room was getting increasingly agitated and concerned. Students looked genuinely worried. One finally said, “But if the government comes to your door and demands that you use your anthropology to help them, do you HAVE to?!” I was about to reassure her that as far as I knew it had not yet reached the point of forceful conscription, when a peer helpfully responded, “Omigod!!! Didn’t you people SEE Transformers?!!!”

It was time to move on to the next reading anyway, and she had now provided me with the perfect segue (an element of all well-crafted sitcoms): so we discussed Foucault’s vision of power and discourse analysis with a whole new zeal.

Many Random Things on my Mind

I am intrigued by what seems to be a persistent pattern among my peers, one that seems to render them unlikely (not to say incapable) of thinking anthropologically about their own lives, and careers.  I am frustrated by the number of times I’ve had the, “go ahead and submit that article you are sitting on, what are you waiting for,” conversation with my fellow women in anthropology.  Did they not  remember that article submission (among other things in our profession) can still be highly gendered, and that men tend to send stuff off because “it’s great,” and women tend to send the same quality of stuff off much less often, because it “needs some more work”—and then gets lost in the shuffle, and never gets sent out at all.  How can more of us not know this consciously, and then fight against it?  Why is it not a part of our graduate training (maybe it is for some, but it was not for me) to confront and discuss these patterns, and then be taught some real, practical strategies for breaking them?

 And what about the way that we treat our colleagues, sometimes (most of the time)?  I’ve blogged about this before, the anti- social, sometimes sociopathic tendencies of socio-cultural anthropologists, and how our training actually encourages this tendency to isolation and lack of social skills once we are in professional environments like, say, universities.  I marvel at the lack of self-reflexivity, in these people who are purportedly professional describers and analyzers of the human condition.  Or maybe it’s just an academic thing , and we anthropologists are nothing special in that regard.

I am also intrigued by the apparently unreflexive way that some are throwing around “ethnography” as if it is equivalent to Anthropology, and not, instead, part of our toolbox.  Ethnography springs from our particular disciplinary history, and has been adopted by people in other disciplines (sociology, for instance).  It also shows up in corporate practices, like research for advertising and design.  Perhaps it would be useful, in  (for example) our concern about HTS and ethnography, to make it clear that just because someone is engaging in ethnography does not make them, in fact, anthropologists.  And one can be doing unconventional ethnography (short-term, for instance, in the case of many corporate projects), and yet be doing so anthropologically. 

 Could some of these things be due to a persistent lack of grounding in both our disciplinary history, and in practical training for becoming professionals and colleagues?  Are we short-changing so many anthropologists, not giving them the right kind of toolkits, or perhaps mindsets, to succeed not just within their own narrow subfield, but in the wider world of academia, and (perhaps) the real world itself?  And are we rendering ourselves incapable of describing the significance of our work, and our discipline, to the wider world, by neglecting these parts of our professional upbringing?  Maybe we’d be in a better position to counter the Montgomery McFates of the world if we equipped ourselves a bit better to begin with, and gave others far less power over the representation of our discipline.

Really Nice Strangers

      I have traveled quite a bit in the last few months.  In June I was in Thailand about ten days, and I have been living in Germany since August.  During this time, I have had the usual mix-ups that go with traveling—missing trains, wandering off in unforeseen circumstances, and just generally misplacing stuff.  Generally people are pretty nice about these things.  Indeed, I just met “met” my third really nice stranger in these travels, so I guess it is time to acknowledge them.

        The first really nice person was a Thai woman on a small motorcycle after I decided to use a tourist map to walk from Chiang Mai University where I was staying, into town.  I thought it would take about an hour, and that I could do it before it got really hot.  But, I got the map sideways (or maybe backwards), and ended up walking off in a really wrong direction for about thirty minutes.  I ended up between some rice fields, construction sites, and noodle stands before finally acknowledging my mistake to myself, and starting to walk back.  

     I must have looked pretty odd along this hot stretch of road, because the woman on the motorcycle stopped to ask where I could possible be going. She was about 27, and had her three year old son with her. I told her, and she indicated that my destination was a long long ways away—and described the route I needed to take.  I groaned inwardly.  She did a really nice thing though, and asked me if I wanted a ride.  SURE, I did!  And so I piled on the back of the motorcycle made for three, and ended up back where I had intended to go in about five minutes.       

      My 16 year old daughter found the second really nice person the usual way.  She left her purse with about $200 in dollars and euros, as well as her California driver’s license on a bench near a the local castle here in Friedrichshafen.  We assumed that we would never see the purse or money again.  But our new neighbors convinced us that it was indeed reasonable to file a police report.  So we did, and the following day, the police called to report that the wallet had been found.  The purse was returned with all the money, i.d., and so forth.  

       We found our third last really nice stranger yesterday when my cousin, who was visiting from Berlin, left her cell phone on a train.  We had gone to a one of these really nice cute German towns for the afternoon, but by the time we reached there, her cell phone was gone.  Groan….But when we got home, my cousin went to check her email.  Someone found her phone, checked the entry for “home” in her address book, and had called her flat in Berlin.  Her roommates emailed her the phone number of the person who found the cellphone who we immediately called, even though it was 10 p.m.   Today my cousin is meeting the third really nice person at the ferry to pick up the phone before flying back to Berlin.

       I am sure that there is a moral, or at least an anthropological insight to all this, but I don’t know what it is.  Except maybe the point is that there are some really nice people in the world. Also, it is sometimes nice to accept rides from strangers, always check the lost and found for missing items, and you should always have “home” programmed into your cell phone.  

       And if you ever find someone’s phone, use it to call home—someone will really appreciate it!

Well, at least the AAA meeting gave me some perspective

I didn’t say it was a happy one, but it is a perspective. Of course there were the expected strident calls of moral outrage over anthropologists in the military. Then it got worse when a voice vote was taken and passed that “no reports should be provided to sponsors [of research] that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied.” (from the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Blog http://chronicle.com/news/article/3532/anthropologists-vote-to-clamp-down-on-secret-scholarship ). To be clear, this does explicitly include the kinds of proprietary research I do for my clients.

Well, there we go… apparently when that resolution passes next year (I have no doubt it will) my industry brethren and I will once again be non-anthropologist anthropologists and the rest of the field will return to the comfy tower without fear of getting its collective hands dirty. I am not renewing my membership that expired last Thursday. It’s not some form of protest, but more of why bother? I went into the AAA meetings feeling like people were having arguments that are nearly 50 years old, and already rolling my eyes. But now I’ve stopped rolling them.

I’ve realized that being annoyed at the American Anthropological Association and the more vocal members of the organization is like being annoyed at an old doddering relative. You know the one I mean, not quite crazy enough to lock up in the attic, but still likely to blurt out embarrassing anachronistic statements during holiday meals like “We may have lost the war, but I’ll be damned if I recognize missou-ra!” Also like the AAA, the effect on my life and career other than the occasionally embarrassing statement, is exactly zero.

The only function of the association is to hold a meeting once a year, distribute info about open positions in academia and issue statements about ideology. Other than that, I don’t see much. You can’t make someone stop being an anthropologist. No one can reach into my brain and remove the knowledge. Never in my career has anyone asked if I am a member of the AAA, I don’t even know if it’s a requirement of an academic department to be a member.

I don’t claim to do classical ethnography, that’s why many of us in my end of the field prefer the term Design Ethnography or Design Anthropology because it is a sub-field that is different from the long-term studies others do and used for different ends. Its not better or worse, it’s different.

So, I’m still an anthropologist but one that places academic and professional freedom above being in an Association that is trying to keep us all in a box.