Why Can’t I Eat My Pet Fish?

This originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly Q&A series about U.S. culture featured in my newsletter.

QUANDARY

So, I get why we can’t (won’t) eat our dogs. But what about pet fish?
~from Lesley

ANTHROPOLOGICAL EXPLANATION

Oh, goody! Lesley’s question gives us the opportunity to complicate our understanding of the basic cultural categories that inform our interspecies relationships, and explore what happens When Those Categories Collide…

We can think about animal-human relationships in terms of relative proximity. In the very first issue of this “advice” column, I addressed the idea that non-human animals exist on a continuum of proximity-to-humans. This continuum can be traced using the concept of edibility. Animals that humans consider to be edible (“fair game,” if you’ll indulge me) fall into a particular span on the proximity continuum: they are close enough to humans to be mundane, but not so close that they are emotionally important. In the U.S., the edibility span is where we will find cattle, pigs, and chickens. Different cultures categorize animals differently along the continuum, and for Lesley’s question about pet fish, we’ll stick with mainstream U.S. culture.

Now you might want to have a Dramamine for this next part, because we’re about to take a mobius-trip.

The meanings of animals change with practice—the cultural category a given animal is in depends on how humans interact with them. Conversely, our interactions with animals are bounded, imperfectly, by these categories. Proximity dictates practice, which dictates proximity. It’s a reciprocal loop of mutual influence. It’s also helpful to remember that emotional proximity maps onto physical/categorical proximity, thereby correlating with edibility. (Sea-sick, yet?)

Anyway, the upshot of this is: Pets are animals with whom humans maintain close physical relationships and develop emotional ties. Humans also avoid eating pet animals for supper.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what about fish? An excellent question. In the U.S., fish can occupy different categories depending on how humans interact with them: exotic, edible, and pet. It’s the interaction that can transform a fish into friend, foe, food, or instagram subject.

Pet fish occupy a particular position within the pet category because they create an intersection of the exotic and pet categories, neither of which make them edible. Whereas “normal” fish (think tuna, salmon) are categorically edible, pet fish are decidedly not food…unless you’re Otto in A Fish Called Wanda. But the movie understands him to be a psychopath, reinforcing the normative categorical structure of animal-human relationships.

We keep pet fish close to us, so they become like-us to the extent that they become inedible. Exotic pet fish are doubly inedible. But we do not keep pet fish as close to us as we keep, say, a pet dog. Pet fish live out their lives in tanks, whereas pet dogs live out their lives without this extra physical separation. The relationships are different, the interactions are different, and their relative edibility index is correspondingly different, as well.

At the same time, many pet fish are also “exotic” in the sense that they are not typically the types our culture eats. Do you know anyone who keeps a sturgeon in their office? (Don’t answer that.)

In conclusion, because of the ways we interact with them, pet fish simultaneously occupy two inedible categories on the proximity continuum. Take your pick—just don’t fry up that betta for your next dinner party.

 
MISCELLANY

For more background on the history of pet keeping in the U.S., check out Pets in America by Katherine C. Grier.

In 2010, mid-way through writing my MA thesis about the category of cow that’s created in a petting-zoo, I had the fortune to hear Donna Haraway give the keynote address at the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s “Nature Culture” conference. Conference attendees were split into camps: those who believed nature and culture were separate and that categories were useful, and those who believed categories were no longer useful in understanding the interactions among beings. Haraway had recently written a book called When Species Meet, which explores human-animal “encounters” and posits that humans can become “companion species” with other species of animal, “becoming with” one another. After her keynote, John Law was charged with responding. He asked Haraway about fish, positing that dogs are easier to connect with—thereby becoming a companion species—than fish. I believe he said something like, “just look at it!” (Sometimes it’s difficult to break free of one’s cultural categories.) Haraway suggested that one could ratchet-up mediated ways of responding when it comes to human-fish relations. Somehow, there would be a way to create intimacy across the median of diversity. (Underwater, no less!) Law seemed stuck on the problem of “significant otherness.”

Come for the backlash against vegetarians; stay for the Oster eggs puns.

***
Do you have a question about the culture we live in?
Ask an (armchair) anthropologist!

***
Reminder
While some thought and research does go into answering these questions, this is largely armchair anthropology, brought to you by someone who left academia in 2010. There’s a very good reason I’m no longer a “real” anthropologist, and it’s called Fieldwork Talking to Strangers.
You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.

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Filed under Animals, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

On Culture and Power

This essay originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly feature in my newsletter. It has been edited slightly for this format.

Like many of you, I’ve been preoccupied by the issue of power in the United States. I’ve been thinking about how cultural change and policy interact; how power is conferred and reinforced, and how exactly to understand where our national cultural is at this moment in time. The last preoccupation is likely impossible until historians get a crack at things a few decades from now. Things are moving so fast that it’s difficult for social scientists to get a true handle on what’s going on.

Knowing full well that distrust of institutions is partly what contributed to our present, incomprehensible reality, I find myself wary of those with institutional power who have failed, over and over, to push back against the unilateral directives coming from our Executive branch. Deep down, I had more faith in both parties, and perhaps especially in the party with which I most frequently disagree. Surely Republicans held the sanctity of our national narrative in higher regard than this. Surely they would be the ones to say, “Enough” and take action to protect, if not the people being harmed, then the Constitution. I didn’t realize how much I was counting on them until I found myself shocked, again and again, by their lack of action. Here I was, assuming they were the party who truly cared about America. And now I’m not sure they even have the power to do anything, much less the will.

Power is tricky. At once simple and complicated, it can be easy to locate but difficult to trace. The origins of power are distinct, yet related to, the execution of power. But where is power located?

  • In individuals whose actions have consequences for others. An individual’s authority is granted by the populace over whom they have power – either explicitly (via democratic elections) implicitly (via cultural tradition) or by violence (see “military might,” below). Leaders have a social contract with the public over which they have power – without the public’s support, an individual cannot impose their will without additional sources of power (see below). Authority is earned and can erode if the social contract between the public and the individual leader is broken.
  • In institutions that provide the scaffolding of civil society. A few days ago, I read in the LA Times that the Getty released a statement condemning the recent executive order that resulted in a travel ban. The fact that an arts institution wrote a statement commenting on a federal action, released it, and was taken seriously by a media organization speaks to the power that institutions have within our society. But institutions, like individuals, also owe their cultural cache to the unspoken acknowledgment of the public, who confer upon them the status of institution within the broader social landscape. Institutions are authorities when it comes to certain types of knowledge, leaders by virtue of their reputations as depositories of society’s “best.”
  • The media is a special type of institution that has enormous power of information and the dissemination of knowledge. They often steer the direction of public discourse by choosing how to represent reality, and as such act as intermediaries between the state and its citizens. But the media, too, is dependent upon the public for their authority. The power to produce information as knowledge is granted by the people who interact with this institution and its knowledge. Once people distrust a source of information, that source’s power is diminished.
  • In military might – physical power. This is related to the power of individuals and the state/institutions, in that most state power is underwritten by the possibility of military force. That is, the threat of violence. I don’t agree with everything in this sobering Politico article, but this line illustrates the primacy of violence to any system of power: “We must (re)accept the notion that hard power is the guarantor of any international system: security is a precondition for anything (everything) else.”
  • In capitalist societies, power also lies in money. This is why you are often addressed as a consumer, and called upon to exercise your power by buying or refusing to buy certain items produced by certain companies. This is why the Citizens United decision was so important. Why people are up in arms with billionaires gaining direct access to government through cabinet appointments. The power that accumulated capital has over our institutions cannot be overstated, and it’s the reason – and it pains me to say this – a corporate response to the federal government may be our best hope to stop the deterioration of our national institutions and social structure.
  • But there’s an important location I’ve failed to devote separate attention: the public. The public is a consistent source of power, as many of the entities where power is located draw their authority from the complicity of the people. So ultimately, power is located in society.
  • In culture. People who shape policy respond to public sentiment, to cultural shifts. To shift the execution and consequences of power, culture must shift. Understandings of what power is, who or what can wield it, and in what ways, can change and thus alter the social fabric.

Our social fabric is partially held together by the nation-state and the ideologies it reinforces. The nation and the state are distinct, yet interrelated, entities. The nation is a cultural entity – comprised of its citizens. The state is the institutionalization of that national culture, backed by military might. Our national culture has always dehumanized people arriving from different places. Our state has always afforded different strata rights and privileges to groups of people arbitrarily delineated and made distinct from the un-marked “white” category of person who is automatically afforded full rights and humanity. How do we change culture and enact policy that aligns with our values and serves everyone; treats everyone as fully human?

Our nation has always been broken. Our country exists because of colonialism: we are colonizers, reaping the benefits from land stolen from people white colonizers considered sub-human. Anthropology is itself a product of colonialism, and we have a moral responsibility to do no further harm with this form of knowledge production. That means listening to the people we aim to understand, ensuring they speak for themselves, bringing their truths to light. Deconstructing the many meanings of cultural practices.

We are constantly creating and reinforcing aspects of our society and culture as we go about the practice of living. This means we all have some power to shape reality, to effect change. I’ve been thinking about what I can do, besides calling my representatives, to help heal our nation. How cultural change can influence policy. It’s my duty to expend effort in service of the greater good, especially if my efforts can benefit those who have been repeatedly disadvantaged by our government, institutions, and other social systems.

After spending the past year half-heartedly trying to be a freelance writer, and falling back into grant writing and nonprofit communications, it’s clear that what I need to do is draw on my training in the social sciences and get to work. I’ll be looking for ways to contribute to organizations that are working for social justice, and that means acknowledging that while my experience of obtaining my MA was traumatic, it in no way negates the social science training that I have at my disposal. It’s my obligation, and my desire, to apply my training to the betterment of society.

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Poetic Interlude: Shadow Brand

large rectangular shadow stretches into a road

Mercedes monolith
Rises from the dusty heap of civil society
Shrouds the cracked public sphere

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Wordplay

The International Appeal of a Hyper-Local Dance

A gentleman in his eighties hands off his walker, embracing his partner as they shuffle to a jaunty tune. Couples of all ages emanate from the inter-generational pair, filling the hall with waves of subtle movement. It’s 11:00 p.m., midway through the 6-piece band’s second set. At least five more hours of dancing await those with the stamina to carry on.

Men sport straw hats and knickerbockers while ladies with elaborate hairstyles keep rhythm in reproduction vintage shoes. Russian, French, and whiffs of hand sanitizer float by on an endorphin-powered breeze. A speakeasy appears in a waiting room and people snap bootlegger selfies before a mugshot backdrop. Parents take turns tending to children so each enjoys the dance floor. The drummer swigs from a green bottle as the MC introduces the next song. Hand-carved art deco borders frame the stage. Invocations of the storied past consist entirely of names: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Django Reinhardt, Benny Goodman. Nostalgia has been reborn.

Welcome to California Balboa Classic.

Modern Revival

California Balboa Classic (Cal Bal), a weekend of workshops, social dances, and contests drawing dancers from around the world, puts the typical conference to shame. Because attendees must engage their bodies to absorb the knowledge presented, exhaustion is physically exhilarating rather than mentally draining. Not only does Cal Bal know how to keep their attendees awake, its instructors are in such high demand that there is often a waiting list to register.

Founded in 2013 by Laura Keat, Cal Bal took up the mantle laid down by Balboa Rendezvous, an event that for ten years gathered new generations of dancers “where it all began”–the Balboa Pavilion in Newport Beach. Though Cal Bal has moved the festivities inland, dancers continue to flock to Southern California in mid-January for the chance to be close to balboa’s historic roots.

How does a partner dance originating on Balboa Island in the 1920’s attract a modern international following that rivals that of the Rose Parade?

Balboa is a social dance that originated on the Balboa Peninsula in the 1920’s and 30’s as teenagers interpreted popular jazz and swing music in crowded dance halls. In its “pure” form, balboa can be danced to extremely fast music in as small a space as two people holding each other close can occupy.

Over the years, balboa evolved to incorporate more exuberant movements from various styles of swing dancing. Modern balboa dancers delight in combining vintage and innovative stylings. Jodi Daynard, a dancer visiting from Boston, said balboa appeals to her for many reasons, but that “the creativity is the part I kind of live for.”

Global Appeal

Now in its fifth year, Cal Bal has become the premier event among dancers who want to enhance their knowledge of this vintage social dance. Hosted at the Pasadena Masonic Temple and nearby hotels, the event attracts people from almost as many countries as the Rose Parade does just a few weeks before. “This is bal heaven!” declared one dancer from the Bay Area.

Our neighbors to the north aren’t the only ones who travel to the City of Roses specifically for Cal Bal. People from Seattle, Denver, New York, Honolulu–not to mention Australia, Korea, Japan, and Germany–all gather in Pasadena to share their affinity for the vintage Southern California pastime. For one couple from the Netherlands, Cal Bal served as the capstone of their week-long trip to Los Angeles, a tour that included The Huntington Library and The Getty Center. 

How did a partner dance originating on Balboa Island in the 1920’s attract such an international following? The key could be the authenticity that the locale provides.

Stephan Wuthe, a Berlin DJ and jazz historian, was attending Cal Bal for the second time. “It’s the real thing here,” he said. Most modern balboa dancers can trace their knowledge to Cal Bal instructor Sylvia Sykes, who learned from the original dancers in the 80’s and 90’s and introduced the dance worldwide. Stephan noted that European instructors teach similar material to that featured at Cal Bal, but it’s important for him to attend an event in “the area where the dance was created.”

Lifelong Learning, International Community

Cal Bal’s world-class instructors are also a major draw. For three days, attendees spend hours mastering new techniques. “You can’t fake bal,” said Cal Bal instructor Augie Freeman. “You have to have a base knowledge to dance with somebody.” Often, friends enroll in different workshop levels so they can share what they learn afterwards.

Instructors and participants alike are diligent students, constantly seeking ways to elevate their dancing. This commitment to excellence is rivaled only by a commitment to fun. By Sunday morning, class sizes are noticeably smaller; many people stay out dancing and socializing until 4:00 a.m.

One of the notable things about balboa’s modern resurgence is the cross-cultural community that has arisen around it. “You can dance with anybody,” said Stephan. “For those three minutes, we are a beautiful couple.”


2017 California Balboa Classic takes place January 6-8 in Pasadena, CA

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Nostalgia

Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies