Tag Archives: identity

Scattered Fragments and Other Musings

I’m in the process of working up quite a long piece on the complexities of the human-pet relationship as illuminated in a sometimes-trite picture book. It will appear soon. Dammit. But until then, I thought I’d get a few thoughts off my figurative chest and literal scraps of paper that have been waiting quite a while to be made legible, if not logical. None of them have inspired any real burst of verbose or coherent analysis, but they aren’t entirely worthless, either. So here they are for your consideration, fresh from the nearly-discarded notecards and stickie-notes of my car, in all their fragmented glory.

“Best Friends” Necklaces At least a decade ago, there was a(nother? probably) wave of “best friend” merchandise marketed at young girls–ages 9 to 13, say. Things like a set of necklaces that had half a broken heart each, one with the word “best” inscribed on the cheap metal, the other with the word “friends.” To state the obvious, these types of trinkets represent in a very material way the commodification of friendship, not to mention the performance of it. They had the potential to exacerbate the pre-teen drama seemingly inherent in female friendships (and inevitable falling-outs). Choosing to don or eschew a broken heart necklace could be as hurtful or meaningful as “breaking” a real heart or finally making a “real” friend. This commodification and fetishization of necklace and the ideas it represented put volatile meaning to things. But how do you explain all that to a twelve year-old?

Evolution of Art A now-forgotten segment on NPR about some art happening sparked a hastily scribbled note about conceptual art as prioritizing the making rather than the saving of a work of art. Art as process itself. An engaging-with art-making; participatory art. Making something lasting that can be saved or sold is beyond the point. Art as the performance of itself.

Performance vs. Static Identity Another NPR story dealt with the idea of “genius”–that at one point, the word was used in a very different way and that this difference has significant implications. To be general about it, “historically,” one was spoken of as having genius, rather than being a genius. It was a quality external to the self. Now it is a quality part and parcel of the self. This change in meaning seems to jive with quite a few things I’ve been reading lately about the shift from the external performance of personhood to the internal coherence of a static self. The shift to the concept of identity as an internal and fixed aspect of being. The self was not always such a concern–emphasis was placed, rather, on how one upheld the values of one’s community: it was more about service to one’s society than a concern with one’s inner being, which was not necessarily thought to be separate from the outside world or fixed. This shift is dealt with in Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles as well as Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America. Perhaps it is because both books deal with gender and trace its movement from being located in social performance to its current location in an internal and fixed identity that explains both author’s attention to this overarching ideological change. But to bring it back to the beginning, I think this shift that they both identify illuminates the changing meaning of “genius” with respect to its use. As the ideology of the self evolved into its present state, it became more acceptable/made more sense to use the word “genius” as a quality that one could posses as part of one’s identity. It was no longer some third-party muse that chanced upon the lucky individual, sparking a happy accident of knowledge production or art. (Yet another example of meaning deriving from use. Ling-anth!)

Beating the Dead Horse of the American Dream This is why I get angry and am not so hot for America much of the time: One of our most enduring (yet constantly refuted) national myths is that of the American DreamLand of opportunity for all, life liberty, etc. That it persists is the backdrop of my anger at our constant boundary-making, social policing, and general intolerance of difference. Sure, if we want to play the comparison game, other cultures and nations are “more” oppressive, but because of this myth I’ve been indoctrinated with, I feel we should do better. We should try harder to live up to this (impossible) myth of opportunity–which requires tolerance of difference. Especially in a capitalist society; some concession must be made to temper the inhumane hand of the market so that difference is taken into account. Is valued. Is given the space to create opportunity that looks a little different. We can’t just provide opportunities for those who follow our arbitrary rules. This makes “success” too unattainable. We must do better. Even if the myth is just that. If we keep telling it to ourselves and slamming it down and telling it to ourselves, shouldn’t we try to make it true, if only to stick it to all the cynical authors of the past 100+ years? (I’m looking at you, Fitzgerald and Miller.)

Whew. Now to the recycle bin!

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Profitable Discourse: NBC’s “Education Nation”

There have been quite a few ads for this new segment/series on NBC stations. While conversation about the state of education is great, what struck me was that this feels like a corporation seizing upon a sexy topic–one of concern for many citizens–and capitalizing on it. After all, news conglomerates are businesses. For-profit businesses. To get advertisers to buy space, they have to ensure that people will consume the news they disseminate. Hey, people seem to be worried about education–let’s create a series, website, and blog that speaks to those concerns.  That’ll get them to watch! And how handy: a catchy, rhyming title. They’ll associate our name, our logo, our news brand, with what matters to them! 

Discourse (much of which has been created or at least fueled by the mass-media, let’s not forget) is yet another opportunity to build the brand. By associating NBC with what is perceived to be a social good–public education–capitalism wins again. These ongoing, mediated conversations promise to “make a difference” to viewers and participators…and to the corporation’s pocketbook. It’s profit masquerading as a practical response to national discourse and those topics that are latched onto in waves of hand-wringing and fist-clenching. Capitalism in the trappings of populism.

To piggy-back on the idea of public discourse, the fact that national news corporations now deal with broad topics of concern is symptomatic of how our society interacts. We think of ourselves as a nation. Locality is still there, but we pay overwhelming attention to things that are perceived to concern our state, our country as a whole. The village we belong to has grown. Our community has become televised, and our neighborhood is now online. These are gross over-generalizations, of course, and it would be worth exploring whether or not this move to exponentially larger circles of community and the ways in which they are mediated is mirrored by a refocusing on ever-smaller local identities, such as towns and neighborhoods. As we strengthen our national identity, do we simultaneously cling to the micro-concerns of our local identity?

Either way, news corporations have us covered. Oh boy, are we covered. They know what we care about, what will make us watch, and they know how to get us to care about things, as well. Perhaps this move shouldn’t be derided too much, as it probably will lead to productive conversations about how to improve the educational system, whether those conversations lead to actual positive changes or not. It’ll be interesting to monitor this series and its partner website to see what NBC decides to focus on. And it’s always worth looking critically at things from different perspectives, especially if they seem oddly benevolent.

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