Category Archives: anthropology


This post may be tl;dr for some, but seems a necessary attempt at summary for me, and may be useful to other Convivium participants who might still be puzzling over things I invoked in last week’s bout

Yesterday Betsy asked what did I mean in citing “the Dude abides” in answer to her “no-self” citation of the Diamond Sutra, in the continuing discussion over personal response to the question of how we severally think about The Big Picture. I fumbled an explanation along the lines of Here I am, I’m doing what I do and further cited the Kurt Vonnegut tagline “and so it goes…”. Unsatisfactory, and ever since I’ve been thinking about how to explain more fully.

Here’s how one explicator of the Vonnegut quote puts it: “the inexorable universe doesn’t care one whit about our lives and it’s up to us to make of them what we will… it’s just me and my mind making things up.”

(“And so it goes” appears more than 100 times in Slaughterhouse 5, each a reflection on a death observed.)

My impulse to make light of serious things, to resort to the cynical and sardonic, to voice extreme sentiments that exaggerate what I actually believe … is sometimes baffling and even hurtful to others, or at least confusing. This wants explication.

Perhaps I should be asking: whom do I really Respect and why and how? Kurt Vonnegut would be pretty high on the list, and his Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons would be a primary text, hot stuff from its very first pages and a distillation of his thoughts on self and writings. If you’re not already familiar with the titular terminology, Vonnegut explains:

A wampeter is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. Foma are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: “Prosperity is just around the corner.” A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings… [a college class, viz. Harvard 1965, would exemplify]

I have a long history of wee-hours pondering, in which I’m awake at 3 AM, thinking in words and phrases that evaporate like dreams unless I arise and write them down. This morning’s iteration was spawned by the “the Dude abides” showstopper from this week’s Convivium—in which I said something that the others found Delphic, impenetrable, completely off the wall… being, as they were, unfamiliar with the allusion to The Big Lebowski, and thus completely at a loss to know what I meant. The 3 AM phrase that got me up and writing was a characterization of my state of mind in alluding to “the Dude abides” as my take on the Big Picture and how to characterize it:

frivolous, flippant, profane

and I soon added ‘transgressive’ to those three.

So now, a few hours later, I’m trying to unpack all of that, explain it to myself and perhaps to others, and make sense of the incident… which will take us pretty far afield, for who knows what constructive purpose.

The Wednesday evening Convivium sessions (these days conducted over Zoom) are, so it seems to me, opportunities for 4-5-6 of us to explore how we see, interrogate, and experience the world… which may not be what my interlocutors think/perceive/wish. Generally they seem to me to be of the Spirit and the spiritual to a greater degree than I think I am. I have a pretty agnostic view of Spirit and spiritual for myself, but am thoroughly willing (I hope, or maybe wish) to cut others slack in their own conceptions and practices.

As I’ve said rather tiresomely, I take refuge in projects and explorations, defined by a lifetime of exploring edges and interstices, of finding the joke and exploring the significance of the preposterous. There: ‘exploring’ 3 times in one sentence. It’s what I do. Why, and whither, and whence I only barely understand. Occasionally I encounter others of similar proclivities, and some of those have been lifelong friends.

For many years (at least since the late 1960s) I’ve considered that I was engaged in Nacirema and Naidanac studies, which specialty is ultimately inspired by Horace Miner’s Body Ritual among the Nacirema (American Anthropologist 1956).

…According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength – the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided…

The documents of this backwater of anthropology include many films that could only be American (there are films that could only be English, or Swedish, or French, etc.—that have contents and characters that simply are not thinkable as American). Translation across cultural boundaries is perilous, as exemplified by [perhaps] well-meaning efforts to translate dialog. Yesterday I watched The Big Lebowski with French subtitles, which obscured about 90% of the humor as it would be appreciated by a native speaker. “Dude” is glossed as “Mec”, for example…

So the immediate problem is to explicate what I see in The Big Lebowski, why I regard it as “one of the best…”, why I’m gobsmacked that everybody doesn’t know it for the cultural icon I believe it to be, and so eventually to arrive at why I cited “the Dude abides” as my own take on elements of The Big Picture. I do have to recognize that some of this is, as we say, non-transitive—it may not be explicable/understandable to others, and my take may reduce in their perception to another example of oook’s frivolous, flippant, profane stance toward the sublime and numinous, toward what really matters. So it goes, to invoke Vonnegut again.

I think a substantial element in my Umwelt (“self-centered world”—a coinage of Jakob von Uexcüll [1909]: “the small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect“) arose from/in California 1956-1961. Just how might be discoverable via introspection, but the details are for another time. The notion that fictional characters in literature, in films, in songs, in visual imagery can encode and express verities is surely at the core of what California taught me in those years, and is obviously the bedrock of the movie industry. The Sam Elliott character who NARRATES The Big Lebowski is obviously a necessary/essential fabrication; and the Dude may be, as Sam Elliott says, “a man for his time and place”… We enter a world of total fantasy, populated by preposterous characters who nonetheless REFLECT realities we recognize as possible, plausible. Walter Sobchak is a Type; Maudie and the Big Lebowski himself and the other goofballs who populate the film are not without some relation to reality. Or Reality. Julianne Moore [Maude Lebowski] puts it thus:

I feel like we all kind of know people like the Dude, or have known people like the Dude in our lives, this whole idea that the Dude abides. He’s always there, always doing his thing. There is something about him that is straightforward and honest, and he is who he is. And he’s hung onto that, you know? He hasn’t been deterred by time changing.
(I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and what have you, pg 40)

It’s the preposterous that makes the film memorable, that captures our attention in every scene. NB other books: The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski, The Dude De Ching: New Annotated Edition, and The Tao of the Dude: Awesome Insights of Deep Dudes from Lao Tzu to Lebowski, all by by Oliver Benjamin…

But would I read the film in that way if I hadn’t been transported from New England sensibilities in 1956, at age 13, and immersed in Southern California for the next 5 years? And if I hadn’t spent another formative 5 years in the Bay Area, 1967-1972?

Isogloss bundles

This morning, while waiting in the barn for today’s Zoom yoga session to start, I gathered up a few word books in the general realm of American English and one fell open to a map of isoglosses, which immediately called to mind a song written Donkey’s Years ago by my dear friend Ken Stallcup, who said that he got one good song out of every career. I quarried the mind for all that I could remember of the text as I lay on the mat, and here it is (there might be verses I haven’t remembered, indeed I hope there are…):

Little peasant upon the land
what’s that implement in your hand?
How many years have you been here?
What do you call your mother’s brother?
Tell me what you shouldn’t do and what you oughta,
Now that I’ve got my data I’m on my way

Anthropologist pen in hand
Now you’re standing here on my land
You to me are but a passing breeze
Kroeber, Lowie, Leach and Levi-Strauss
and even Malinowski have stayed in my house,
Now that you’ve got your data, where’s my pay?

Dialects run along isogloss bundles
Leaving little wavy lines across the Earth
With money from Ford and it’s all very interesting
But other than that, tell me what is it worth?
Other than that, tell me what is it worth?

I’m contemplating a heap of books on American English and on dialects thereof and trying to figure out how to make an efficient and interesting summary of their whats and whys, via comparisons and tasty extracts. How is one to make sense of these riches, thousands of pages of words and analysis and commentary, difficult of access and best consumed in sporadic tastings, not in epic bouts of reading? The collection or more exactly collocation would be perfect for bit-by-bit consumption in the Locale of Easement, but for the unwieldy format of the Large Book. A cleverly designed hinged or rolling desk might be the solution, but would perhaps not meet with universal enthusiasm if constructed and installed as a fixture in the Smallest Room. Perhaps a Dictionary Alcove built onto the side of the house…

At work upon several future posts in these realms.

sculpture, masks, therianthropy

A couple of days ago I awoke with the question of just who is responsible for the idea that a sculptor liberates a figure from within a block of stone by removing material. It turns out to be Michelangelo:

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

(photo by Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons)

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

For Michelangelo, the idea was already there, inside the hunk of stone,
whether by divine providence or his own imagination.
His eyes and hands were merely the vessels by which that idea—the art—was brought forth
into the physical world as he or God (or both) originally intended.



And a few days ago I ordered Chris Rainier’s new book Mask, thinking that it would assist in threading together elements I’ve been juggling as I assemble materials for the next Blurb book. Pico Iyer’s Introduction has some very useful perspectives:

(of an owl mask he had bought in Bali) It wasn’t just a mask… It carried a whole universe, a swarm of roiling forces, within. I really couldn’t tell if the spell it cast was happy or malign… All I did know was that it belonged to the realm of the spirit, the world of transformation…

…an agent of transfiguration, which allowed whoever wore it to become something other, belonging to the sphere of angels and demons.

In Africa, I knew, different kinds of masks signified the ways in which another world could enter our own, liberating our minds from the conscious realm into something no less real but much less easily tamed.

Masks are not just a portal to another world, but a reminder of the fact that our lives are defined by amazement and terror and silence. Just to see a mask is to travel out of the everyday into another, a more secret realm.

I’m still trying to figure out in what way my life might be “defined by amazement and terror and silence”, but the rest is surely pure gold, and suggests to me some new ways to think about the rocks I’ve been photographing: they are in a sense sculptures, and they have some of the Powers that are built into masks.


A story in this morning’s New York Times, Mythical Beings May Be Earliest Imaginative Cave Art by Humans, surfaced the word Therianthrope just when I needed it:

In the story told in the scene, eight figures approach wild pigs and anoas (dwarf buffaloes native to Sulawesi). For whoever painted these figures, they represented much more than ordinary human hunters. One appears to have a large beak while another has an appendage resembling a tail. In the language of archaeology, these are therianthropes, or characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics.


Therianthropy is the mythological ability of human beings to metamorphose into other animals by means of shapeshifting. It is possible that cave drawings found at Les Trois Frères, in France, depict ancient beliefs in the concept. The most well known form of therianthropy is found in stories concerning werewolves.

Quite a few of my rock creatures occupy territory between human and creature, and it occurred to me that

Therianthropes guard the bridge
between the risible and the numinous

a formulation that is just too delicious as a description of part of the landscape I’m dealing with. So now I need to find some examples. And today being the first day it was cold enough for ice to form on the ponds at Drift Inn, we went to see if there were photographs to be made. Indeed:




and one from the recent Nova Scotia trip:

hands up

I won’t attempt to calculate the risibility and numinosity quotients of these, and only the lattermost seems to rise to the level of full-on therianthropy (and it’s probably a dryad anyway).

of Morphic Resonance

It’s been months since the last post here, almost 3 quite busy months since our return home from this year’s cross-continent trip. The last six weeks included a very successful gallery show for Broot and a one-day pop-up show for me, and we’re now in Nova Scotia, just finishing another 3-week trip, this one a 55th anniversary circumtransit of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (four nights by freight boat from Rimouski to Blanc Sablon PQ; ferry from Labrador to St. Barbe, Newfoundland; north to L’Anse aux Meadows, then down the west coast to Gros Morne National Park, then ferry to North Sydney NS, and finally to Horton Landing; home to Maine by the weekend).


The usual welter of thoughts and reading and explorations of this’n’that accompanied, of course, so there’s much to get caught up.

The Flickr photostream tells many tales but also leaves out happenings that didn’t happen to get photographed. I’m just uploading the bountiful harvest of our week in Newfoundland, and thinking through What It All Means. And wondering what’s next. There are Flickr Albums of faces, surfaces and abstracts, and landscapes as a first stab at sorting the hundreds of images.

The perennial puzzlement of how to think about and what to do with the vast array of anthropo- and zoomorphic images of rocks and wood and water seems to be heading toward a resolution, but the complexities and leaps of association that underlie will take some explication. The cut-to-the-chase of the moment is an evolving scheme for a multimedia gallery presentation next summer, the provisional title for which is

Morphic Resonance:
Portraits in Stone, Wood, and Water

but the emergence of that title takes us back more than 3 million years, to the Makapansgat Pebble, which is surely an anthropomorphic form.:

The hominin ancestor who picked up and carried the pebble some 20 miles from its geological origin seems to me to represent an early (I’m tempted to claim the earliest) instance of aesthetic Consciousness in our own evolutionary branch [“possibly the earliest example of symbolic thinking or aesthetic sense in the human heritage”]). My own pursuit of wholly imaginary faces in various materials seems a direct descendant. I’ve been chewing over the deeper significance of this for the last year or so (since I learned of the Makapansgat Pebble). A couple of weeks ago the phrase “morphic resonance” drifted through my mind, and seemed somehow portentious (though I can’t remember when/where I first encountered it). It turned out to be a coinage of Rupert Sheldrake:

Morphic resonance is a process whereby self-organising systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems. In its most general formulation, morphic resonance means that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. The hypothesis of morphic resonance also leads to a radically new interpretation of memory storage in the brain and of biological inheritance. Memory need not be stored in material traces inside brains, which are more like TV receivers than video recorders, tuning into influences from the past. And biological inheritance need not all be coded in the genes, or in epigenetic modifications of the genes; much of it depends on morphic resonance from previous members of the species. Thus each individual inherits a collective memory from past members of the species, and also contributes to the collective memory, affecting other members of the species in the future.

This seems akin to notions of ‘distributed consciousness’ with which I’ve been toying in the last year or so, and surely skates on the rim of mystical hoo-hah. I direct your attention to the Bodhidharma posts of February 2018 for earlier instances, and of course to the Just a Rock: a lithic menagerie book; see also Form Finds Form and Just Another Rock and Allegories and Agglomerations for more kindred threads.

What Kittens?

all what you do it come back to you
you got to bear the consequence

(an extended rumination, knitting several trains of thought)

The Young Tuan B3

53 years ago we were in Sarawak, helping to build a new village into which people from 15 Iban longhouse communities would be resettled. This Land Development Scheme (its formal designation) involved the planting of high-yield rubber trees which the Scheme participants would (eventually) tap, thus trading a semi-self-sufficient life on the fringes of the cash economy for full-fledged peasant status, living on the proceeds of their labor in the sort-of-cooperative rubber plantation. They would “own” their rubber plots, but pay mortgages on the land and on the single-family houses in the new village. What could possibly go wrong?

The premise that government-sponsored Development would make a better life for all (schools for children, health care clinics, “Progress”) was almost completely unquestioned. The assumption that demand for natural rubber would increase was unstated, because self-evident to the minds of mid1960s government planners. But that’s not how it turned out.

The new village was built next to the single trunk road that connected to the state capital (some 80 miles away) and continued on to link a series of (basically Chinese) towns, all situated on rivers that had formerly been the primary transportation corridors. Quite suddenly the accessibility of rural hinterlands changed—buses were available to nearby towns, a vastly expanded range of goods and services became available, and participation in a national and international cash economy was ubiquitous.

That process of infrastructural development and contingent change was what I thought I would return to Sarawak to study, but that’s not how it all worked out. I went to Nova Scotia instead, and only occasionally checked in with what was happening in Sarawak. The last 50 years has brought devastation of forests, the building of large dams on several rivers, rural dislocations and resettlements, and the advent of palm oil plantations to take the place of rubber as the principal primary export commodity. The Sarawak we knew is all but unrecognizable.

The new village of 50 years ago was on the edge of a vast and largely impenetrable peat swamp, covered in 100+ foot hardwood trees. Nobody envisioned any possible use for that land, since it would have to be drained and cleared. Nobody thought of palm oil as a possible crop for Southeast Asia until about 1980. That’s when Malaysia (and Indonesia) started to ramp up palm oil planting. Beyond swamp-draining and planting of oil palm, I don’t know any of the details of the development in the area we worked in, but in general the development process in Sarawak involves government and large corporations, and the public face of the operations emphasizes the benefits to one and all of the glorious implementation. The only sure thing is that the little people get squeezed and screwed, while somebody else reaps the benefits.

My attention to this bit of backstory comes about today because of a New York Times Magazine article on the tragedies of palm oil, which mostly focuses on Indonesia, and which raises some wider issues that I’m inclined to discuss under a new rubric: What Kittens?. The reference is to a passage in Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel, written 90 or so years ago but absolutely on the money today. Still more backstory is needed.

well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

When I began to read about agriculture, in the early 1970s and before I went to Nova Scotia to do research in what I was pleased to label as “agricultural transformation”, a central concept for my explorations was the importance of exotic energy, by which I meant petroleum fuels and such petroleum derivatives as fertilizers and pesticides. In the 20th century, exotic energy was brought to bear on agricultural production, underwriting its intensification and midwifeing the increasing scale and concentration of agricultural enterprises. It was the inexorability of the transformation process, together with its malign effects upon families and communities, that led me to abjure that line of research as soon as the ink was dry on my dissertation.

I continued to track the significance of exotic energies in human affairs throughout my teaching career, especially in about 15 iterations of a course I called Human Geography. I was never as systematic as I should have been, but I did continue keep eyes peeled throughout the years as a librarian. Some years ago I read a number of news stories about far-sighted experimenters who were using discarded vegetable oil (mostly from fast food fryers) to power their diesel cars. A win-win, one might have thought: recycling a disposable, replacing a petroleum product, carving out an efficiency. Soon after that rash of stories I heard about “biodiesel” as an alternative Green fuel source, and made the assumption that the feedstock must be recycled plant oils… Ah, assumptions. Little did I know that the Southeast Asian palm oil plantations were more and more the primary source of biodiesel, and (hand in hand with deforestation) responsible for much misery along with obscene profits for the perpetrators of ever-larger projects. None of this should have been in the least surprising.

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens

The world of academic thought and action seems at any point in time to be mappable into distinct Disciplines, though the edges of any Discipline are ragged and permeable. But over time, in decades or generations, the boundaries shift and shimmer, and local heresies morph into schismatic reorganizations; intellectual fashions and leitmotifs come and go, and the focus of the Important peregrinates. I’ve been on the edges of a succession of disciplinary kerfuffles, almost entirely as a bemused observer.

In the 1960s the concept of Development was a leitmotif in many social science disciplines, not least in Economics, Political Science, and Anthropology. After a brief vogue for Ecology, Cybernetics, and a whiff of Sociobiology, in the 1970s and 1980s the leading edge lurched toward Postmodernism and Diversities (thankfully, I missed those morasses). The 1990s found those same fields riveted by Globalization. And the 21st century has seen Global Warming and Inequality come to the fore as the reigning integrative challenges. Each of these seems like an era, and the succession leaves a trail of supposed focal Problems behind, their dilemmas unresolved and their protagonists ageing gracelessly.

but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove them

So I escaped the Wheel in the 1990s, into the aether of Library and Information Science, and enjoyed more than a decade of adventures completely outside of disciplinary argy-bargy, learning and building and following my nose. They paid me to know stuff and find out about more stuff and help others find what they were seeking. I had audience and agency, and an infinitude of things to explore. The 13+ years of retirement continues to present that infinitude, in which I revel. I sometimes miss the audience and the agency, though photography offers both.

these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too

But every so often I encounter some subject matter that reopens old files and nudges me toward trying to make better sense of one or another of problems left behind. It was palm oil this time, but who knows what next?

one day she was talking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject

argybargy du jour

All those years ago I was drawn to Anthropology because I thought it was a comprehensive and comprehensible way to MAKE SENSE of the world around me; and in my years as a prof I approached teaching Anthro in the same spirit, looking at the great variety of solutions to the practical problems of living that people had developed over the vastnesses of time and space (well, 10,000 years or so; and terrestrial space, but still…), returning again and again to the observed Fact that the Emperor was Naked. And now I find myself looking to one particular/peculiar strain of the discipline to, once again, [try to] make sense of the contemporary world.

Lately I’ve been reading a number of things that have fundamentally the same message. Much seems to emanate from David Graeber, and is concerned with bamboozlement in many forms:

…a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of US corporate bureaucracy — away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole… corporate management became more financialized, but at the same time, the financial sector became corporatized with investment banks, hedge funds, and the like largely replacing individual investors. As a result the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable… (19)

…the last two centuries have seen an explosion of bureaucracy, and the last 30 or 40 years in particular have seen bureaucratic principles extended to every aspect of our existence… (27)

What was being talked about in terms of “free trade” and the “free market” really entailed the self-conscious completion of the world’s first effective planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system. (30)

…public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth. (35)

If one gives sufficient social power to a class of people holding even the most outlandish ideas, they will, consciously or not, eventually contrive to produce a world organized in such a way that living in it will, in a thousand subtle ways, reinforce the impression that those ideas are self-evidently true. (37)

…what we call “the public” is created, produced through specific institutions that allow specific forms of action — taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings — and not others. (98)

(The above from The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. There’s much more I’d transcribe from Graeber’s writings, including Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and of course Debt.

A similarly resonant voice: Tariq Ali in the latest London Review of Books:
The New World Disorder (Vol. 37 No. 7 · 9 April 2015)

But social democratic reforms have become intolerable for the neoliberal economic system imposed by global capital. If you argue, as those in power do (if not explicitly, implicitly), that it’s necessary to have a political structure in which no challenge to the system is permitted, then we’re living in dangerous times. Elevating terrorism into a threat that is held to be the equivalent of the communist threat of old is bizarre. The use of the very word ‘terrorism’, the bills pushed through Parliament and Congress to stop people speaking up, the vetting of people invited to give talks at universities, the idea that outside speakers have to be asked what they are going to say before they are allowed into the country: all these seem minor things, but they are emblematic of the age in which we live. And the ease with which it’s all accepted is frightening. If what we’re being told is that change isn’t possible, that the only conceivable system is the present one, we’re going to be in trouble. Ultimately, it won’t be accepted. And if you prevent people from speaking or thinking or developing political alternatives, it won’t just be Marx’s work that is relegated to the graveyard. Karl Polanyi, the most gifted of the social democratic theorists, has suffered the same fate.

and this announcement by William Arkin, via Gizmodo, of a Twitter feed covering a lot of the same dolorous but important ground:

o here’s what I plan to do: Expose. Explain. Secrecy and euphemisms are carpet-bombing us into submission. I’m sick of the parameters of the sanctioned debate. So instead I will try to treat the secret world like a sports league: There are coaches, players, commentators, bookies, and marketing geniuses. We’ll have something to say about all of them, something to reveal every week. The teams are the NSA, the CIA, FBI, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Department of Homeland Security, TSA, ICE; and that’s just Division I. There’s a Division II playing somewhere else, far more obscure but nevertheless influential and odious, populated by billion-dollar institutions like the Counter-Narcoterrorism Program Office or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or U.S. Army North, real parasites on the American spirit, survivors because what they do festers in the dark. Each has a history and personality, a lineup, a budget cap, a general manager, a narrative to sell.
(much more and very worth reading)

Rembetika again

Anthropologists are prone to connoisseurship of subcultures, appreciating niceties of identity and keeping weather eyes peeled for boundary-defining shibboleths. Lowlifes and marginal folk seem especially attractive, perhaps because they offer exciting alternatives to the bourgeois stolidity of the Buena Gente. In this realm I have more than 30 years of fascination with the Greek underworld of the re[m]betes and the musical genres grouped under the ‘re[m]betika/o’ rubric. Basic source materials include Gail Holst’s Road to Rembetika: Music of a Greek sub-culture songs love, sorrow & hashish (1975) and Elias Petropoulos’ Songs of the Greek Underworld: The Rebetika Tradition (2000).

To assist your exploration if this is unfamiliar territory, there’s a BBC documentary:

and Music of the Outsiders

and Kostas Feris’ feature film Rembetiko (1983)
and literally hundreds of CD reissues of classic music from the 1920s and 1930s, such as Rembetika: Greek Music From the Underworld … or search ‘rembetika’ and ‘rebetika’ and ‘rebetiko’ and ‘rembetiko’ in Spotify or other streaming services.

Today I came across a really delicious vein of text in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, replete with the trademarked style for which he is celebrated. He’s describing two dance forms, hasapikos and zembekiko:

They are, in fact, the quintessence of fatalism and morose solitude, a consolation and an anodyne in individual calamity, and with the songs that accompany them create a hard metrical and choreographic counterspell. They have another black mark against them: they are linked with low life in refugee quarters, with drunken cellars and hashish-smoking dens and waterfront bars, with idle hours spent over the nargileh, and with a dandified trick of flicking those tasseled and time-killing amber beads. Traditionally they are accompanied by a sartorial style, now largely obsolete: pointed shoes, peg-top trousers held up by a red sash, the jacket worn loose on the shoulders with sleeves hanging ‚ and by twisted moustaches, a quiff falling over the forehead, and the cap aslant on the back of the head. With this goes a relaxed gait, a languid syncopated flick of the beads round the index finger held in the small of the back, a cigarette in the corner of the mouth, a faintly derisive smile, a poker face, an unflurriable deliberation of gesture and a dangerous ironic light in the veiled eyes. (pp 244-245)

Downright ethnographic, isn’t it? You really should just get the book and read it…

Gnawing on the bones of the past

I’ve been working over various episodes of my checkered past (see sketches of aspects of graduate school years), which need retreading and elaboration). Recently I happened upon a folder from October 1972, when I’d been in Nova Scotia less than six months and was at the beginning of my dissertation fieldwork. My friend Shel Anderson was teaching a course in Anthropology at Acadia, and asked me to do a guest lecture on what I was doing. At that point in my life, it was easiest for me to write out a sketch of what I wanted to say, and then to use it as a springboard from which to talk (rather than reading the words from the page). I was quite surprised to reread the text more than 40 years later and find that I recognize the person who wrote it, and that much of my approach to teaching during the years I was a prof at Acadia (1973-1990) is pretty clearly sketched in the text. It seems worthwhile to transcribe what I wrote, and perhaps that will inspire me to further dealings with that phase of my life.

I’m going to try to lay a whole lot of different stuff on you, some of which will be repetitive and some of which you may not immediately be able to understand because I can’t express it very clearly, or because I’ve made a lot of assumptions about the way things are that you don’t share, or haven’t gotten around to developing yet. So ask if you don’t immediately understand, and disagree if you think I’m wrong about something –some of you (know it or not) know a lot more about the [Annapolis] Valley than I do anyway.

And also I’m still at the stage where I’ve got a lot of basic questions that have to be answered before I can begin to understand better (like 3 weeks ago I didn’t know what silage was. And I still don’t know what [political] Party affiliation means here in the Valley. And I still don’t know what people’s own maps of things in the Valley look like or how they vary. And I don’t know much more than a few anecdotes about social stratification in the Valley –these are all things that some of you could work on if you felt like it –it would be an enormous help to me, and I’d be delighted to help you figure out how to go about looking into these and other things about the Valley… One thing I do have is access to a lot of different ways to look at the Valley, although I haven’t used them all yet…).

Have to know a little bit about what anthropologists do, when they’re not teaching courses. There’s this thing called “fieldwork” where you’re supposed to go to some remote corner of the world and endure incredible privations and have Adventures and Do Research. OK. So what does “doing research” involve? Well, you’re supposed to gather data with respect to some Problem you’ve defined (by reference to theoretical and ethnographic Literature which you absorb in graduate school). Now what anthropologists usually do is rather different from what I’m doing, but I’ll sketch it out anyway –with the proviso that the way I’m telling it is too generalized, i.e., not all anthropologists are wasteful scoundrels…

There are a lot of Traditional Anthropological Problems which necessarily form a part of what Anthropologists Do. Once you decide where you want to go (and reasons are usually pretty ad hoc) and somehow get yourself there, you have to somehow establish yourself, which means get to be known by the people you’re going to rely upon to Provide You With Data. So you choose an area, e.g. a village or group of villages or a bunch of people. And you have to do some very basic information-gathering, like mapping the physical setting (with maps, and with analysis of such things as productive activities) and mapping the population (e.g., doing a survey to see who’s where and who they’re related to). Once these preliminary tasks are begun, you start looking for evidence relating to the particular Thing you’ve claimed you were going to study. And eventually you return [to the university whence you came] and write a report of what you’ve done, which gets called an Ethnography…

But basically what you DO (and remember this is still a very general picture of what anthropologists are “supposed” to do and be doing) is live with, more or less closely, the people you are studying. Now this sounds a bit romantic –the young Sahib, dressed in A-line shorts and solar topi, asking questions and getting answers and writing them down, returning to his tent or grass hut in the evening to Write Up his notes on the typewriter.

Now, anthropologists really do a lot of things which don’t fit with this picture. Like they get interested in bigger things than little villages, and in other human groups than Natives with Bones In Their Noses. In fact, one of the nice things about anthropology is that you can, theoretically, do it anywhere (unlike Sociology, which is usually thought of as the study of your own society), including your own society (although there’s no unanimity on this point –there are those who say you need “Cross-Cultural Perspective” in order to understand anything you see, and therefore must go to a Cross Culture) And an anthropologist (he who has paid his dues in grad school) can call just about anything he does Anthropology.

OK now me: I’m working on some problems that anthropologists generally haven’t paid much attention to –I’m doing research in Canada (but not on Indians), I’m concerned with an unusual (for anthropologists) social unit (the Region) and with some unusual substantive problems (modern agriculture, economic organization of a highly-developed type), and I’m using some unusual tools (quantitative/statistical geography, maps, enterprise analysis using formal economics, and stuff like that).

In a sense I’m ‘only’ doing ethnography, but in a different way, with a different unit of analysis, a different organizational level, and in a different temporal framework than it has been done usually. I’m trying to produce an exemplar of an empirical approach that has not been attempted by anthropologists, and thus to produce a new way to look at human organization.

The fundamental empirical question I am asking is: how are things distributed, in both space and time?

And then (and this aspect requires investigative tools not common in anthropology): how does distribution change? What can be said of processes (economic, demographic, political, social…) in this population? The whole point is to develop a new way of looking at the organization of human populations –or perhaps to develop ways of seeing the interrelations of organizational variables.

So what GOOD is this? Personally, it’s gratifying to know more about the place one lives and the times one lives in. And that’s something that people have to do more (rather than less) of. And ‘professionally’ I’m looking at some things that sociologists, anthropologists, etc. haven’t studied very often: a transformation which is found repeated over the North American landscape, a chunk of time rather than a moment (the only way to study change), a physical and territorial unit of a higher level of integration than those usually studied.

In short, I’m looking at how this region has changed since World War II. Since it’s a farming region, and since farming has changed tremendously since 1946, the main questions I’m concerned with relate to the processes of change in farming. Now there are a lot of processes you can look at –start with just the numbers of farms (and NB that the Census provides my main starting point for data –it provides a statistical sketch of the outlines of change), then look at different types of farms, at different sizes of farms. This generates new questions as one proceeds, but the basic way questions get generated is that you look at the distribution (statistical and/or spatial) to try to account for why it looks the way it looks –how it got that way, what forces have acted upon it and are acting upon it… Anyway, there are a million things you can do. The problem is to string them together into a coherent whole that gives you some ideas about how to answer (or at least deal with) the original problems that got you interested in the thing in the first place. A really good way to think about all of this is in terms of the systems in realspace, with real people in them.

Now since I’m interested in the Region and its organization, I have to consider much more than just farming, even to answer the questions I have about farming. So I look for ways to deal with the population system (and again the Census comes in handy) and with the web of organizations that hold the population together –, that is, in the Integration of the region. Now, Integration is a process, and not just a state. You have to keep working at it to hold things together, and it doesn’t just happen naturally. Thus, you have to expend energy (which you have to get somehow from the environment, and store up somehow for later use) to maintain order. You’re fighting entropy… So because we’re dealing with Processes, we need to see events as structured in time. And it is no less reasonable to be directly concerned with events as structured in space as well.

Now, we can say as a general rule for starting that the Territorial System is spatially structured by centrality, and temporally structured by periodicity. So look at these analytical notions (centrality and periodicity) in relation to any subsystem you define –like political, economic, etc. etc…

So there are Regional Systems, and Regions are real things, and they change and evolve –or rather the populations within them change and evolve. There’s a basic rhythm to this, almost: there’s a population system, with people being born and dying and getting married and having kids… and the individuals in those systems grow up and age and form groups and maybe migrate and maybe make it through school and maybe get a job somehow and maybe change the job and maybe get married… i.e., they’re real people.

And they play a lot of elaborate formal games in order to eat: they trade stuff around, using tokens (and access to and supply of tokens is not uniform, for a lot of reasons) which they get in a variety of legitimate, quasi-legitimate and illegitimate ways.

One can look at those games, how they are played and how the players (and the rules) change –that’s the essence of looking at marketing systems: what flows where and in what quantities.

And one can look at the formal, quasi-formal and informal rules for moving stuff around. And moving the privilege of access to stuff around. That’s what Lenski means by a stratification system –control of access to resources.

And you can look at all the stuffing and frills, the odd bits of behavior that the players have a strange way of repeating –the Culture, Social Organization, the Society…

The thing is, the Regional Systems notion gives you a framework to hang your knowledge of an area on, and thus allows you to broaden your knowledge and understanding of the ways in which your Environment is operating.

There are a number of reason why this is not just an idle game played by people who stayed on the Academic Bandwagon to the end of the line –one of them is purely selfish– if you know something about what’s likely to come from where in your (hostile) environment, that’s better than knowing what hit you afterwards, or rather, better than knowing nothing…

But in order to have any Understanding in any deeper sense, you have to integrate a lot of different kinds (and sources) of Information.

Now, we all DO this, mostly unconsciously and to a much less developed degree than we would if we really thought about it. Like, when you first arrive in a new place, like Wolfville if you’re not already from there, you don’t have any information, you don’t know your way around. You learn, both consciously (like when you ask someone, or set out to find something) and unconsciously. So you’re already structuring your own egocentric map of the region. Over time, the map elaborates, is corrected, becomes a resource…

OK, now imagine trying systematically (and consciously) to develop some part of your map –to get more information about something and construct a more elaborate map. So you identify some domain that you’re interested in (for whatever reason)

Event: like school amalgamation, looking at differential response of localities

Institution: like Kentville town government –look at factions, crises, everyday business over 25 years… or Service Clubs: who’s in them and what do they do? How are they stratified? Who’s NOT in them?

As I remember, the class went very well, was augmented with various show-and-tell exhibits like maps and datasets and photographs, and led to a lot of student questions and improvised answers.

On the supermarket frontier

Lately I’ve been taking my 87-year-old neighbor Don Miller shopping in Rockland. He’s a garrulous and interesting dude, long-time mechanic and lifelong Midcoast Maine resident, pretty fiercely independent (“they wanted to put me in a nursin’ home, but I wouldn’t have none of it…”) but no longer able to drive himself. I’ll hope to do him more justice another time, but here he is in his usual plumage:


He likes to shop at Shaw’s, a grocery store I don’t usually frequent (Midcoast folks tend to be fiercely loyal to one or another of the chain supermarkets), and I had time to wander in parts of the store that I don’t usually visit (I tend to shop the peripheries, not venturing into the land of High Fructose Corn Syrup that makes up the core of most supermarkets) and gather up bits of intelligence on what’s on offer these days.

Midcoast Maine is pretty far from the Big Time of American food crazes, but I was interested to see the variety that demands shoppers’ attention these days. Take couscous, scarcely a staple of the traditional diet of this region:

Couscous1 Couscous2
(below: Herbed Chicken, Original Plain, Mediterranean Curry, Roasted Garlic and Olive Oil, Parmesan, Toasted Pine Nut, and Basil and Herb –but see Near East for mooooore…)
And who knew that farro had made it into quick-fix packaging?
and as for Moroccan cuisine, packaged for American tastes:
The old reliable Boyardee appears in many guises, and here exemplifies the American genius for BIG:
Now I wish that I’d thought to track the evolution of these innovations in American foodways, which I’m sure has been both rapid and punctuated. I mean, cranberries are a long-time New England staple, but what is one to make of infused dried cranberries? And just think what other flavors may show up on next year’s shelves…
There’s a world of Anthropology of Food out there, begging to be studied and deconstructed.