Category Archives: Nacirema

Been a while

…what with summer visitors, a weekend at an extreme yoga workshop, more summer visitors. But here’s one that summarizes a lot of what I learned about The South in 13 years of living on its fringes, courtesy of Michelle Shocked:

Something is Happening Here but you don’t know…

Sometimes you realize that Time is Passing You By, but there are ways to get yourself Up to Speed again, like deconstructing this (some Extra Help at Wired):

(once again, I’m rediffusing something that Everybody Already Knows About, just in case you don’t…). To further confuse/inform yourself, immerse yourself in these two:

Any Student of Americana surely needs to include Liam Kyle Sullivan in the Canon: and Liam’s YouTube videos will be efficacious, but caution is probably advised in the where and when… Still, Let Me Borrow That Top, Muffins and Text Message Breakup strike me as Contemporary Cultural Essentials.

Virginia Woolf as Martian Anthropologist

As a long-time student of Nacirema and Naidanac cultures, I’m always on the lookout for examples of trenchant observation of those and other closely related societies. During the morning’s bathroom reading, currently Woolf’s Three Guineas (originally published in 1938), I found this passage and was, as they say, brought up short. No apologies for the length of the passage, and the whole delicious chapter is available via University of Adelaide:

Let us then by way of a very elementary beginning lay before you a photograph —a crudely coloured photograph— of your world as it appears to us who see it from the threshold of the private house; through the shadow of the veil that St Paul still lays upon our eyes; from the bridge which connects the private house with the world of public life.

Your world, then, the world of professional, of public life, seen from this angle undoubtedly looks queer. At first sight it is enormously impressive. Within quite a small space are crowded together St Paul’s, the Bank of England, the Mansion House, the massive if funereal battlements of the Law Courts; and on the other side, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. There, we say to ourselves, pausing, in this moment of transition on the bridge, our fathers and brothers have spent their lives. All these hundreds of years they have been mounting those steps, passing in and out of those doors, ascending those pulpits, preaching, money- making, administering justice. It is from this world that the private house (somewhere, roughly speaking, in the West End) has derived its creeds, its laws, its clothes and carpets, its beef and mutton. And then, as is now permissible, cautiously pushing aside the swing doors of one of these temples, we enter on tiptoe and survey the scene in greater detail. The first sensation of colossal size, of majestic masonry is broken up into a myriad points of amazement mixed with interrogation. Your clothes in the first place make us gape with astonishment. How many, how splendid, how extremely ornate they are —the clothes worn by the educated man in his public capacity! Now you dress in violet; a jewelled crucifix swings on your breast; now your shoulders are covered with lace; now furred with ermine; now slung with many linked chains set with precious stones. Now you wear wigs on your heads; rows of graduated curls descend to your necks. Now your hats are boat-shaped, or cocked; now they mount in cones of black fur; now they are made of brass and scuttle shaped; now plumes of red, now of blue hair surmount them. Sometimes gowns cover your legs; sometimes gaiters. Tabards embroidered with lions and unicorns swing from your shoulders; metal objects cut in star shapes or in circles glitter and twinkle upon your breasts. Ribbons of all colours —blue, purple, crimson— cross from shoulder to shoulder. After the comparative simplicity of your dress at home, the splendour of your public attire is dazzling.

But far stranger are two other facts that gradually reveal themselves when our eyes have recovered from their first amazement. Not only are whole bodies of men dressed alike summer and winter —a strange characteristic to a sex which changes its clothes according to the season, and for reasons of private taste and comfort— but every button, rosette and stripe seems to have some symbolical meaning. Some have the right to wear plain buttons only; others rosettes; some may wear a single stripe; others three, four, five or six. And each curl or stripe is sewn on at precisely the right distance apart; it may be one inch for one man, one inch and a quarter for another. Rules again regulate the gold wire on the shoulders, the braid on the trousers, the cockades on the hats —but no single pair of eyes can observe all these distinctions, let alone account for them accurately.

Even stranger, however, than the symbolic splendour of your clothes are the ceremonies that take place when you wear them. Here you kneel; there you bow; here you advance in procession behind a man carrying a silver poker; here you mount a carved chair; here you appear to do homage to a piece of painted wood; here you abase yourselves before tables covered with richly worked tapestry. And whatever these ceremonies may mean you perform them always together, always in step, always in the uniform proper to the man and the occasion.

Jackleg video

I’ve been thinking about presentation of still images via animation, considering both the technical wherewithals and the aesthetics of visual and audio production (voiceover? textover? music?). This realization of Hine photographs from ScrappyGater provides a lot of food for thought:

Personally, I’d rather hear than read those captions and screens of text, and I’m not sure what I think about Ashokan Farewell as accompaniment (though it’s a marvelous tune, applicable to just about anything reflective or heart-wrenching).

…and ScrappyGater (Michael Jeffries) has a fistful of other Productions that you’ll be greatly Informed by. Note especially his not-still-image videos Ya Don’t Fool with the Ingledoos (which isn’t embeddable, but you’ll probably be glad you clicked, unless you’re a snake fancier) and Uncle Buddy: Jackleg General Contracting Hour, both of which carry me back to Old Virginny, fer shur.


Good Old Serendipity (in the form of the 11 Sept 2007 iteration of WFMU’s Antique Phonograph program) brought me to Rosetta and Vivian Duncan, and some googlement ensued:

Wikipedia article
Midnight Place article
I’m Sailing On a Sunbeam (1929, via YouTube)
…and Mean Cicero Blues from Jeff Cohen’s delirious Vitaphone Varieties blog

What caught the Old Ear was this preposterous song:

The Argentines, the Portuguese, and the Greeks (1923 –there’s a slightly different version linked via Jeff Cohen). My not-quite-complete transcription:

Columbus discovered America in 1492
Then came the English, and the French, the Scotchman, and the Jew
Then came the Dutch and the Irishman to help the country grow
And still they keep on coming, and now everywhere you go
There’s the Argentines, and the Portuguese, the Armenians, and the Greeks
One sells you papers, the other shines the shoes
The other takes the whiskers off your cheeks
And when you ride again on a subway train
Notice who has all the seats
They’re all held by the Argentines, and the Portuguese, and the Greeks

Now there’s a little flat where you lay your hat
Has a history I’ll explain
The ….. is a …., the hobo is a Coon, the elevator fellow is a Dane
But who is the gent that collects the rent at the end of these four weeks?
That is all done by the Argentines, and the Portuguese, and the Greeks

There’s the Oldsmobile, and the Hupmobile, and the Cadillac and the Ford
Now these are the motors that you and I can own, the kind most anybody can afford
But the Cunninghams and the Mercurys and the Rolls Royce racing …
They’re all owned by the Argentines, and the Portuguese, and the Greeks

Now there’s the Argentines, and the Portuguese, the Armenians, and the Greeks
They don’t know the language, they don’t know the laws
Yet they vote in the country of the free
And the funny thing when we start to sing “My country ’tis of thee”
None of us know the words but the Argentines, and the Portuguese, and the Greeks

There’s the Argentines, and the Portuguese, the Armenians, and the Greeks
When we’re departed, our souls will soar up in the heavenly seats
At the Golden Gates, where the angels wait, we’ll be asking there for seats
And they’ll all be reserved by the Argentines, and the Portuguese, and the Greeks

Make of it what you will…

Cautionary Tales?

Things connect. Sometimes the linkages are obscure, or tolerably tendentious, or simply risible, or maybe they’re just co-incidental. And I suppose sometimes their Moment hasn’t come, and the nascent dots aren’t connected. The last few days have brought onto the stage several threads for which I’m seeking the Nexus. A prize to the reader who can construct it from these bits, each of which can be read as a sort of Cautionary Tale

Digression: Hillaire Belloc was not, perhaps, a very nice fellow, but his Bad Child’s Book of Beasts and Cautionary Tales for Children were staples of my own youth. Consider:

The Dromedary

The Dromedary is a cheerful bird:
I cannot say the same about the Kurd.

The Frog

Be kind and tender to the Frog,
And do not call him names,
As “Slimy skin,” or “Polly-wog,”
Or likewise “Ugly James,”
Or “Gap-a-grin,” or “Toad-gone-wrong,”
Or “Bill Bandy-knees”:
The Frog is justly sensitive
To epithets like these.

No animal will more repay
A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
Who keep a frog (and, by the way,
They are extremely rare).

(end Digression)

The candidates for interconnection: Amédé Ardoin, Thomas Midgely, and Harlan Ellison. Not exactly household words, but all have re-crossed my path lately, so I’m sporting with their possible interlinkage.

Amédé Ardoin came up this morning via Old Blue Bus, one of the music blogs I follow. The link to Two Step de Eunice will probably disappear in a few days, so listen while you can. The specific point of interest of the moment is the Tale of his death, which seems to have several variants:

Ardoin’s death remains shrouded in mystery. One report has him being brutally beaten after wiping his brow with a handkerchief handed to him by the daughter of a white farm owner. According to McGee, Ardoin was poisoned by a jealous fiddler. More recent studies have concluded that Ardoin died of venereal disease at the Pineville Mental Institution.
Craig Harris, All Music Guide)

A cousin of renowned black Creole accordionist Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin, he crossed racial boundaries by performing with noted Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee. However, he stepped too far when at a dance around 1941 he wiped away sweat with a handkerchief offered by a white female. Suffering a terrible beating after the dance, he eventually died of his wounds, emotional and physical, at Pineville on November 3, 1942.

Thomas Midgley, inventor of (1) tetraethyl lead AND (2) freon, came up in an answer to a friend’s email question about global warming. Both inventions transformed the technologies they were developed for (the internal combustion engine, and refrigeration) in the short run, and both of which turned out to be really really really BAD things in the long run. Bits of the story are available here and here and here and here. The story of Midgley’s death (strangled in a device of his own cleverness, contrived to solve the problem of his own physical limitations) makes the karmic point more obvious, if karmic points ever really work that way. But the other spin on Midgley’s work is that our civilization owes a very great deal to the efficiency of the gasoline engine (said efficiency absolutely based upon the high compression engine design that tetraethyl lead enabled) and to the possibility of cooling buildings and refrigerating food –indeed, our civilization is simply unthinkable without those two elements (the same story could be told with any number of other essential technologies). To be sure, our cleverness has found substitutes for both tetraethyl lead and freon, but not exactly “just in time”, and the substitutes themselves are iffy too (e.g., MTBE which succeeded tetraethyl lead as an antiknock compound, and is now being replaced by something else because of its toxicities).

And the third came up because I’ve been reading in Harlan Ellison’s anthologies Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) and exploring who Harlan Ellison was/is and what he’s done. The two anthologies enjoy a reputation as ground-breaking collections –see James Schellenberg’s review as an example. The missing third anthology is the subject of a long-running soap opera which (among other things) provoked Christopher Priest’s The Book on the Edge of Forever –see Amazon reviewers’ comments for more on “a fascinating account of one of the most famous non-books ever not-published”, and note that “Ellison has been severely criticized for neither publishing the volume nor returning control of the stories to their authors, some of whom have since died.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in various corners of the realm of “speculative fiction” (see Wikipedia and a Wikipedia portal, and explore The Internet Speculative Fiction Database and ISFDB Wiki).