Category Archives: Check This Out!

Currently Contributing to my Brain’s (En)lightening Storm

Thinking about the larger structures that inform our everyday experiences has sent me into epiphanic raptures since at least my early college days. In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered several works that take a systems view of the pressing issues of our time. Taken together, they seem to coalesce around imagining what comes next for society and planet. At the very least they have all set my brain alight. I hope some of them do the same for you.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

A sample quote ~

We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival. It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking. Not that this will save us–but it might open our imaginations.

I first encountered Tsing’s work in my Intro Anthropology course, where we read In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. This helped us understand post-structuralist ethnography. Two years later in our “Commodities and Human Agency” course, I read parts of what was then her most recent book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. From Tsing, I learned about the critical value of studying the margins: of society, of economies, of history. Mushroom goes even further into this poststructuralist marginalia, incorporating multispecies perspectives into her meandering, riveting storytelling. She leans into the interconnection and impossibility of synthesizing competing narratives, recognizing the whole as mutable and somewhat unknowable. But always worth investigating. Her work, like much of the other work I’ll discuss in this post, allows me to envision a future worth creating and living.

The Next System Podcast on Capital Bias

Specifically, an episode about capital bias and transitioning to an economy driven by worker-owned enterprises. Marjorie Kelly reminded me why I got involved in starting a food co-op five years ago, and why Marx & Engels’ work on capital and labor is still relevant today. She challenges us to rethink the relationship society has with capital, and imagine how it might be different.

“You don’t eliminate capital any more than with feminism you eliminate men–you just change the power relationship.”

Kelly’s work on generative design and capital bias, not to mention The Next System’s larger project, accounts for causality and interconnectivity in our current state of economic inequality and ecological upheaval, among other seemingly intractable systematic problems. That people are committed to working through them gives me hope, and inspires me to join them in whatever ways I can.

Recent Reporting on Artificial Intelligence and Automation

Speaking of work and our ever-transforming economy, I was struck by two articles that dive into the implications of technological innovation: Mother Jones’ “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot” by Kevin Drum, and The New Yorker’s Dark Factory by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Optimistic these stories were not. But they do important work in further sounding the alarm about where AI and automation are leading our economy and society as a whole, and the fact that perhaps we should be putting policies in place to protect people and their livelihoods. Worker co-ops could be part of the solution, as could universal basic income.

Upstream Radio on Universal Basic Income

Upstream focuses on the social determinants of health, which means their work covers all sorts of fascinating topics, from climate change to the prison system to foodways to education. Its recent podcasts (or “documentaries,” to use their term) have tackled the various models of universal basic income and their potential effects on society. Like The Next System, they imagine the paradigm shifts necessary to enact more livable futures. Also like The Next System, their optimism inspires some skepticism: how on earth would our globalized economy shift away from capitalism? But they have intriguing ideas, and I’m willing to listen and learn whether some of them might be applicable.

Secret Feminist Agenda on Whatever it Damn Well Pleases

Hannah McGregor, co-host of the essential Harry Potter podcast “Witch, Please,” has a new show wherein she addresses current events, pop culture, academic topics, and much more via a feminist lens and in collaboration with intelligent guests. Secret Feminist Agenda has helped me rethink laziness and productivity, parenting, academia, accepting when work is “good enough,” how women are socialized to be cogs in a machine that extracts our labor for very little compensation, and most crucially, how to resist this by living differently in the world. It’s truly a balm in a world that is chaotic and overwhelming.

Hurry Slowly on Rethinking Work as a Sustainable Practice

Speaking of pushing back against the exhausting status quo, the podcast Hurry Slowly is interrogating the ways in which we can slow down and get more meaning out of our professional and personal lives. Guests share different workplace models that value a separation between life and job, reasons to limit smartphone use, and how to engage with nature as a restorative force. The overarching idea is to make a person’s productivity sustainable, and the strategies presented in these episodes are ones I plan to hang on to as I contemplate my future career moves.

Science Vs on Renewable Energy

Finally, I’d like to plug a recent episode of the podcast Science Vs, which asked whether it was possible to achieve 100% renewable energy. Far beyond renewing my desire to get more involved in combating the myriad ill effects of climate change, one of the show’s guests provided validation of my (admittedly rare) propensity to harbor hope for the future. When asked whether he would have children today, energy economist Jim Sweeney had this to say:

Absolutely…I’m not going to give up on the future because there are challenges. There are always challenges. I was born in World War II; my parents had children. So I don’t see that there is any reason for believing that we’re going to go to hell in a hand basket. We will have challenges there is no doubt about it.

All of the readings and podcasts listed above have reinvigorated my desire to go deep, learn more, and look for solutions to some of the major systemic problems society faces. I want more of the work I do to be geared toward building a future that values people and planet. There are many things to work on: climate change, economic inequality, educational access, gender equality, racism and xenophobia, environmental preservation–you name it, it needs some work.

Now to pick something and get started…

 

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Hold Your Applause

This is a recent column from Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. The column is published each month in my newsletter.

Quandary

How do people know how long to clap/applaud at social events?
~Baylee

Anthropological Explanation

Baylee’s question sent me to JSTOR, bastion of academic articles. Unsurprisingly, music journals had a lot to say on this subject, most of it of the hand-wringing variety. (As in, “why, oh, why can’t our stupid audiences clap the way we professional performers think they should?”) But let’s step away from that cacophonous minefield–I’ve collected a few choice gems in the “Miscellany” section at the end–and talk about crowds, social norms, and communication. This discussion focuses on a U.S. cultural context, because that’s what I have the most experience with.

There are different schools of thought about what drives group behavior, some that allow for more individual agency and rationality than others. My attempt to answer this question will employ a mish-mash and I probably won’t provide an adequate literature review to trace their lineage. I’ll be talking about applause in terms of the social situation of a performance, but we can apply a similar analysis to sporting events, speeches, or any situation that involves a person or people set apart from the people whose role in the interaction is primarily observational.

Applause is a form of communication both between audience and performer and among audience members. It can encapsulate several meanings, often at once:

1. Indicating that the performance is over.
2. Demonstrating support of what just concluded.
3. Demonstrating support of the person or people who performed.
4. Indicating a positive emotional or intellectual reaction to the performance.
5. Demonstrating adherence to social expectations of polite behavior.

Let’s unpack that last one. We have been conditioned to behave in certain ways depending on what context we find ourselves in. These are social norms. People who become members of an audience have joined in a ritual that triggers a set of behaviors, one of which is clapping at the conclusion of the performance. In addition, by becoming a member of the audience, people suspend certain individual behaviors in the service of greater group cohesion. Regardless of whether an individual enjoyed a given performance or not, that individuals is likely aware that society expects them to applaud when it is over. To not engage in the group act of applause would be making a strong statement against said performance. Unless an individual has reason to make their negative reaction to the performance publicly known, they are probably going to contribute a few halfhearted claps to the group’s applause at the “proper” moment.

Now that we’ve established the social expectations that generate the group response of applause in the first place, let’s move on to tackle Baylee’s question of how individuals within the group know when to stop clapping. It seems to happen spontaneously, but as we’ve seen from how applause begins, its cessation may also be partly automatic. This question turns on the idea of knowledge, which is a tricky thing to deal with anthropologically. As my professor Anne Lorimer reminded us time and again, “culture is in practice, not just in people’s heads.” So let’s see if we can find what audience members might be thinking in what they are doing when they stop applauding.

“Nowhere has controversy about mental processes been more salient than in theories of crowd behavior.”
Richard A. Berk, ‘A Gaming Approach to Crowd Behavior,” American Sociological Review Vol. 39, No. 3 (June 1974) pp.355-373

In 2013, Royal Society Open Science published research findings that suggested applause spreads among an audience “like a disease,” with people relying on audial cues to drive their individual clap contributions. Other sociological research also takes this “contagion” view of crowd behavior, treating groups of people like mindless herds who merely follow the unidentifiable will of the collective. Of course it’s more subtle and people deserve much more credit. As I outlined above, the meanings of applause and the contexts in which it’s generated depends on people’s awareness–even if they aren’t specifically thinking about it every second–of what behaviors are acceptable and expected of them at any given moment.

As we applaud, we are attuned to the clapping of others in the audience. After a while, someone in the audience will stop clapping. Maybe their hands hurt. Maybe they disliked the performance and were only communicating politeness. Whatever the reason, that one person or handful of people who stop(s) triggers a chain reaction: we become aware, at least subconsciously, that the noise and/or movement around us has reduced, and because we have resigned our individual selves at least in part to the collective personhood of the audience, we conform to the social expectation that we slow our claps, and as a critical mass of people lessen their applause and finally stop, leaving only the stragglers to betray their non-conformity.

[Detour into the Dept. of Speculation]

The duration of applause, especially when you’re contributing to it, can feel instinctual. You stop clapping when everyone else does. Sure, it ebbs a little at the end and there may be a few stray claps, but on the whole audiences tend to synchronize their cessation. How does this happen? Are we telepathic? Sort of. It could be that, like other social norms, we have internalized experiences of the average duration of applause from past performances and are imperfectly replicating those subconscious memories. In a study on the rhetorical forces that influence audience response after political speeches, John Heritage and David Greatbatch noted that “performance factors are found to influence the likelihood of audience response strongly.” This again points to the social norms both governing and encoded within audible forms of communication. The duration of applause might be correlated with the duration of a performance, the fervor with which it was delivered, or the affiliation between audience members and the performer(s).

So it’s not that we necessarily “know” when to stop, or that there are strict parameters that govern the duration of applause, but rather that we collectively decide in the moment how much applause is warranted based on our prior experiential and cultural knowledge of how vigorously and long we’ve applauded at similar events that evoked similar emotional responses. There’s much more nuance and theoretical underpinnings to all this, but I’ve already rambled on long enough without adequately citing sources.

A final thought before we have a chuckle at the moral outrage of early 20th century musicologists: 

It would be interesting to compare the applauding practices of a group of children with that of a group of adults to see whether the children audiences contain more outlying clappers–kids who continue clapping long after the majority has stopped, or those who stop much sooner, or those who choose not to clap at all. Since children are by their very nature not yet fully socialized, I’d bet that there’s much greater variation among the individuals within the audience and between difference audiences.

Miscellany

I can’t not share some of my more amusing findings from these music journal articles. The ones that problematize applause set up a power struggle between the audience and performer/conductor. In the musicologist authors’ estimations, audiences are comprised of uneducated sheeple who should be either domesticated or skinned alive. Behold:

In 1897, a disgruntled patron of the arts wrote the editor of The Musical Times to complain of his fellow audience members’ uncouth propensity to clap before the conclusion of a piece. It seems that the music was too often “marred by a din of applause” before the proper moment. (The editor replied that “the protest of our correspondent is much to be commended.” Snobs gotta stick together.) Western society seems to have gotten the message: rarely do I hear people clap before the end of a classical piece of music–we all must have our eyes glued to the conductor, waiting for them to lower their arms and signal that the music has, indeed, concluded.

“Audiences capable of genuine discrimination are very rare, and in any discussion of them the question of applause has to be faced.” Thomas Russell, The Musical Times Vol. 82, No. 1176 (Feb., 1941), pp. 54-5

There’s an article from a 1925 issue of The Musical Times entitled “The Tyranny of the Audience.” Hear that, people? WE HAVE THE POWER!!!

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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Announcing a Book Giveaway

*UPDATE: I’m sweetening the deal ~ 3 ways to enter, 3 books to win!

Happy Independent Bookstore Day, fellow readers!

I’ve decided to share my love of reading with a free drawing for three books.

Enter by May 15 for a chance to win one of these books:

braggsville

20160429_103714

20160429_103617

Now through May 15, you can enter this drawing one of three ways (bonus bovine points if you do all three):

  1. Subscribe to my newsletter
  2. Submit a question to Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?
  3. Encourage a friend to subscribe or submit a question(Make sure they contact me to let me know who referred them so that both the referrer and the referee can be entered into the drawing.)

The three winners will be announced in the next edition of my Serious Rachel newsletter, which goes out toward the end of each month. I’ll be in touch with the individual winners via email to discuss delivery details.

Good luck, and happy reading!

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April 30, 2016 · 9:30 AM

Introducing “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?”

Culturally curious?

Ask an anthropologist!

WCIEMD power puff

Pose your most indignant questions about arbitrary taboos and other confusing social phenomena to:

Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?
an advice column for the culturally curious

Answers to your questions may be featured in my monthly Serious Rachel newsletter, and on this very blog whenever I feel like it.

Thanks for writing in!

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I’m too lazy to do anything with this right now

but it’s worth checking out:

blissblog on culturesourcing, local to global, and its implications

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