Category Archives: Historical

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

Reconsidering the Percolator

This article was originally published in Issue 42 of Coffee Lovers Magazine, which is where you should read it because they have things like layout and pictures over there.

Reconsidering the Percolator

in defense of a misunderstood relic

Something’s missing in contemporary conversations about coffee. The one elision in Issue 41’s roundup of preparation methods was mention of the percolator, that much maligned icon of midcentury domesticity. To be fair, it’s easy to forget. Difficult to classify, percolation lies somewhere between immersion and drip methods. For people under the age of 40, “to percolate” is likely more familiar as a metaphorical phrase than a culinary process. To modern sensibilities, the percolator is at best shorthand for 1950’s homemaking; at worst slandered as an inferior method that commits unforgivable crimes against coffee. There is a third way.

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Nostalgia

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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Filed under Check This Out!, Contemporary, Historical, Sweeping Generalizations, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Artful Bodies: “The Michelangelo of Taxidermy”

NPR’s All Things Considered aired a story earlier today about four centenarian hyenas who reside in the Chicago Field Museum. The hyenas were revealed to be the work of the notorious Carl Akley, described by Field Museum exhibit developer Sarah Crawford as “pretty much the Michelangelo of taxidermy.”

This phrase filled me with a particular type of glee, the same glee I often felt while researching my theses on human-animal relationships (first in North Dakota, then at Lincoln Park’s Farm-in-the-Zoo). In addition to awkward interviews and tentative field-work, I read some epiphanic books and articles about zoos, language, museums, abattoirs, systems of classification, Theodore Roosevelt, and taxidermy. All of these things are related.

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1915: Thoughts on Armenian Identity from a 4th-Generation Outsider

The following post is about ambivalence and remembrance. It is comprised of unstructured vignettes, loosely tied with my thoughts on identity, family, and cultural legacy. These thoughts were inspired by the fact that today is April 24, and we are 100 years removed from the beginnings of the Armenian Genocide.

I am not an authority on the Armenian Genocide. I can only speak from my perspective as a fourth-generation descendant of someone who lived through it. There are numerous scholarly, pop, and fiction texts on the subject, as well as recent media coverage of the history and current issues surrounding remembrance. I encourage you to read widely. 


Here we are.

A century removed from the dawn of a genocide that massacred individuals, stolen family legacies, and endangered an entire culture.

Here we are. Here. Now.

We are.

We are, still.

The nation-state of Turkey does not publicly refer to the atrocities the Ottoman Empire committed against its Armenian citizens as genocide. It is public knowledge that this is a HUGE bone of contention for many Armenians & Armenian-Americans, and a sticking point in geopolitics. You may have read about it or heard about it in recent days on the news. I am glad this is getting media attention.

But I have come to realize that I don’t need a government to legitimize my great-grandmother’s lived experience and its continued effects on our family. That being said, I respect that many do need this, and I understand why they do. Recognition, admission of ancestral wrongdoing, is critical to healing. It gives a lot of power over the truth to governments, but that is the world we live in.

The Bastard of Istanbul in Armenian

I read this in English, obviously.

The thing that struck me about The Bastard of Istanbul (a novel whose disturbing reveal you can, to your mounting horror, see coming a mile of alternating-perspective chapters away) is that some modern-day citizens of Turkey might not know about this part of Ottoman-Armenian history, and thus have no simmering feelings or opinions about it. In this particular novel, when Turkish characters hear the story of an Armenian character’s ancestors, they are horrified and sympathetic. But this is the first they are hearing about what was a systematic eradication of an ethnic/cultural group.

Their ignorance shrouds truth. Their ignorance leaves no place for Turkish denial, for Armenian insistence, for indigence or entrenchment on either side. This ignorance is the fault of the state, not the individual. So it is the nation-state, not its people, that become the important players in the geopolitical and ethnic and cultural narrative. This politico-narrative reality is why so many Armenian-Americans are disappointed–if not angry–with President Obama, and thrilled with Pope Francis.

The Brand Library in Glendale has been hosting events, exhibitions, conversations, film screenings, for months now to mark the 100th year of survival. Several times I have been compelled enough, felt enough of a sense of duty, to put these in my calendar. Each time I did not go.

What is it that keeps me from participating? Keeps me from showing up?
Part of it is my dwindling ties to my Armenian heritage, and by extension any entree into the Armenian community. I feel embarrassed at the prospect of going up to someone who seems to embody and/or perform the authenticity I lack and claiming ancestry. They would know I was a phony. And yet, what is authenticity? Am I not authentically, ethnically part Armenian, Americanized to a fault and distanced from “old country” culture by 4 generations and current Armenian-American culture by virtue of not participating in it? That is my authentic embodiment of Armenian identity…or lack thereof. Having confidence in that particular identity around those who, in my mind, are more authentic and worthy of Armenian identity, is the sticking point.
Mother and daughter

My grandmother, Sona, with Vartouhi (Nana)

My grandmother is gone, her mother is gone–no one is left to show me the way.
I thought attending these comfortably anonymous events would be a different way in–an acknowledgment to myself that I could at the very least learn more. Hear what those who are involved in the diaspora community, who are immersed in Armenian-American culture, think and feel. But I did not go. A ceremony was held for the new memorial in Pasadena, and I was not there. There will be a parade today that I do not attend. I am afraid to impose, afraid to feel like an impostor. I have no right to participate. I have little knowledge and have paid no dues–I am not tapped in to the community.

My great grandmother’s name is Vartouhi.  Her story is not unique. I will probably get some details wrong, even in this brief sketch. She fled from Turkey to America by way of marrying an Assyrian whose family was harboring her. She had managed to smuggle Uncle Arto (dressed as a girl), and Auntie Bergie, who she pretended was her daughter. Their parents had been killed as they watched. Too many children could say this by 1920. Too many children can say this now. Once in Washington Heights, an older brother and extended family awaited them and they made a new life. My great-grandmother had two children, worked, divorced, sent her son to war and her daughter to work and got her son back and eventually they all moved to the San Gabriel Valley to start yet another life. Lives. Our family branched and grew. Vartouhi had escaped genocide and created a legacy.

Two Armenian women in the 1980s

Auntie Bergie (L) with Nana (R)

In the early 1990’s, she sat in one of her favorite chairs in her sunny Pasadena living room and her son video taped her story. I have seen it just once, a few years back. It was strange and wonderful, to see her as I remember her at eight. To hear her voice. She and her story and its transmission and retelling and reinterpretation by my grandmother & mother are the reasons I became politicized around my Armenian identity when I was younger. That she and my grandmother are gone have lessened the immediacy of our family’s past, and have made it easier for me to become alienated from this identity over the years.

Armenian mother with son at BBQ

Uncle Al with Nana, engaged in a family activity.

My grandmother helped me share our family heritage in 5th grade–it must have been some sort of Grandparents Day or Immigration Celebration or something similarly and singularly Elementary School. We held up a scroll of the Armenian alphabet, unwrapped my grandfather’s Christening gown, and we must have talked about things, as well. Maybe this was the beginning of my blossoming pride. In my early teens, I claimed Armenian identity in earnest. It made me special. If I had lived in Glendale or near Washington Blvd in Pasadena, it would have been less special, but maybe I would have participated in the diaspora community and be able to feel legitimate about claims to an Armenian identity today.

The Road from Home by David Kherdian

One of my touchstone texts as a teenager struggling to claim Armenian identity.

At 13, I had grand aspirations of learn in to speak the language. I could have–my grandmother was still alive, as was her brother. I read The Road from Home by David Kherdian over and over, book-reported it in English class, told anyone who would listen that I was half Armenian. Looking back, I label myself “obsessed.” In 9th grade, I wrote an abbreviated history, complete with choice gory details, for an extracurricular publication. It drew heavily on a hardback book with a blue cover called The Armenians (I think)–a sweeping history that chronicled the horrors of the genocide. My goal was to shock readers and inspire guilt. It was amateur stuff, fueled by the fire of teenage understanding and the desire to be recognized as something deserving of recognition. My identity was the peg. I’m still glad I wrote about it. I would write it differently today, of course. I’m older. My relationship with my Armenian identity has changed from one marked by pride to one marked by unease.

If you do the math, I am fractionally Armenian–there’s also some Assyrian in there. Every time I try to come up with the actual fraction, I get a headache. “Half” is the default, but it’s probably closer to 3/8. Ethnically, I can claim this Armenian identity. Culturally, this claim rings blatantly false. The last thing my family has are memories and a few recipes we trot out during holidays. Our food is freaking delicious, by the way. We consider Armenian restaurants inferior. They don’t work from Nana’s (Vartouhi’s) recipes, which were kept in her head until the 80’s when a cousin and my mother tried to transcribe what, exactly, “this much” measured in the pinch of her fingers meant.

Armenian woman making kufta

Nana preparing for a Kufta party in the 1950’s

So we don’t use recipes, really. We use what’s in our heads. Each grandchild took responsibility for one dish. One year someone joked that we should consider sharing what has become compartmentalized knowledge & expertise among ourselves. We should probably take this seriously. An Easter without Choereg is no Easter at all, and I don’t even like Choereg. As my generation scatters, the branches of our family unite less frequently. As we Americanize, we share a love for the family food and identify as eaters, but that seems to be the extent of our heritage. Who are we? There are few left who truly remember.

Some of my relatives are still angry. It’s personal. An affront to our family. I used to have this anger, but it has waned. It’s become less personal for me–I didn’t have as much time with the people the genocide affected directly. As the years pass and my experiences with my relatives slip farther from the present, it’s easier for me to think about larger contexts. I’m not sure how I feel about my ability to detach. Certainly I lament my removal from those I love, from the immediacy of experience and into the fading haze of memory.

It’s not my place to forgive.

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