Rants, Ranting, Flame Wars, and the Like

Most of us like to rant now and then.  Usually we do this in the quiet of a bar, with the assumption that as long as we never run for political office, the rants stay in the bar.  But with the invention of the world wide web, there are new parameters to the dissemination of rants.  Witness what has happened here on www.ethnography.com during the last week where Mark Dawson shot his virtual mouth off with the rant right below this posting.  Witness too the responses over at zeroanthropology.net.  Two guys in virtual bars a continent apart rip into each other, calling each other “moron” and “bigoted” across cyber space, while the rest of us vicariously and anonymously enjoy the fireworks.  The good news for www.ethnography.com is that the two rants by Mark Dawson during the last month or so have sent the hit rate, the thing that counts in cyber-space, through the roof.  His first successful rant was an April Fool’s joke about the dissolution of the AAA, and in May there is the “butterfly” rant.  It seems that some people like rants much more than ethnographic commentary; I guess that it gives us déjà vu to when we were eight years old.  In contrast, Mark has done some enchanting writing about the ethnography of clowns, and some girl’s picture on his bedroom dresser which have attracted less than 100 hits even after 3 years.  All people seem to care about are his rants—which can go into four digits within a few days of posting.

Rants by definition are rooted in opinion and emotion.  They are not logical or analytical.  Good rants make us look at the ridiculousness of life.  As Max Forte has implicitly pointed out, Mark Twain was a great ranter.  On the other hand, bad rants make us roll our eyes and mumble “there he goes again.”  Mark did this for me last week with his first rant about Anthropologists for Justice and Peace.  The rant was emotional and made a big deal about other people who were making a big deal over not much.  In other words, there was ranting about others’ ranting.  Big deal.  This type of rant is common on talk radio.  If you want to hear more such ranting from the right, I recommend Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck.  On the left you can go to a Michael Moore movie.  Depending on your political views, you will find them funny or not (for the record I typically put on rock and roll when Hannity intrudes into my evening commute).

But to Mark Dawson’s credit, he caught himself in a boring rant, and posted a mea culpa about butterflies and the Anthropologists for Justice and Peace.  This riposte in my view was a really good rant, and had me laughing.  I laughed at the rant because the rant made more general fun of cultural anthropology’s tendency to put their own political views at the center of their discipline.  Max Forte has in turn responded with an astute and thoughtful paragraph about the contagion of laughter, and what it might (or might not) mean about the one person in the room who is not laughing.  If you want to read it, scroll down into the comments section of Forte’s blog—it is thoughtful.

Anyway, to stick to Mark’s version of ranting, I have seen the political self-absorption described in Mark’s rant in any number of disciplines in the academic world, and agree that is a great thing to make fun of.  Much such ranting is on the left, but over in the Business and Engineering schools, there are plenty of people doing it on the right.  Perhaps I like hearing cultural anthropology made fun because the condition is worse there, but I doubt that it is any worse than Physics, Business, English, Biology, Sociology, or anywhere else.  Maybe I enjoy seeing cultural anthropology made fun of is more likely for more selfish reason, i.e. because my own application for graduate study was rejected in 1987-1988.  Whatever. Like I mentioned earlier, rants are not about analysis, and certainly not about self-analysis.  But, speaking of Mark’s butterfly posting, judging from the hits we’ve taken to the site since the revised version was posted last Wednesday, lots of people are laughing with us, since they have been linking it to their Facebook accounts to share with their friends and family.  In the blogosphere this is a definition of success, so whoop-ti-do, and good for Mark.

I will admit to wishing that my more academic and boring comments on www.ethnography.com would be a bit more popular.  I would really like it if readers posted them to your Facebook account like you do the rants that Mark writes.  For that matter, Mark would appreciate it if you read his ethnography of clowns, and the girl’s picture on his bedroom dresser.  But warning:  Such posts tend to describe ethnographic techniques, research methods, cite guys like Erving Goffman, and talk about the British Library rather than ranting about morons, fascists, and bigots, words which I think should be excised from ranting vocabulary.

Bottom line: Such serious ethnographic postings get far fewer hits than rants.  All I can hope for is that Mark’s rants besides making some of us laugh, point people to the more serious and boring stuff that Mark, Cindy, Donna, Jennifer, and I have posted to www.ethnography.com over the last 5 or 6 years.  But I have little hope.  In our post-modern world rants work, and Malinowski doesn’t.  Just ask Glenn Beck over at Fox News.  He never cites Malinowski!