Tag Archives: political discourse

Thrift vs Patriotism: The Nationalistic Debate over Olympians’ Clothing

The Olympics may be over, but cultural critique is forever.

Before the start of the Olympic Games in London, there was a bit of a controversy state-side over the uniforms that the U.S. team was going to be wearing to the Opening Ceremonies. Apparently they were made in China. Shocking. The mass media had a field day with this, and politicians weighed in, everyone up in arms about the fact that the uniforms should be made in the United States.

Meanwhile, back in America, this is still a capitalist country that participates in a global marketplace. Of course the uniforms are going to be made in China: it’s cheaper! This made me wonder if, had the uniforms been made in the United States, there would have been a controversy about the expense of outfitting our athletes for the Games. Because you know they would have been pretty darn spendy.

What we have here are coexisting, competing yet related sets of values, ideologies even: the virtue of thrift vs. the virtue of patriotism. At this historical-cultural moment in the United States, the virtue of thrift is tied closely to the recession discourse and the “Jobs” trope people have been hammering for the past year(s). On the other hand, the virtue of patriotism [read: anti-China-ism] mandates that we buy U.S. made goods. This virtue is tied to the Jobs trope and the recession, as well. That hypothetical backlash would have been about excessive spending and anti-American consumer practices that “steal jobs” from hard-working stiffs. So basically, in this climate of competing ideologies, consumers can’t win. They will always be doing something antithetical to mainstream American discourse, which draws upon currently-held beliefs. (Those traitors!) This transcends to the larger scale as well, where Olympic officials can’t win, either. There is no right choice, because either one offends a deep-seated and currently harped-on ideology in America.

So you see, there’s no winning. Or rather, there is a winner, at least rhetorically, and that winner is America. (It’s also the loser, based on my argument, but the discourse will always position itself as drawing attention to how America should be winning. Maybe the real winner is capitalism.) This whole controversy–or rather, both of these controversies, the real and the hypothetical–is wrapped in the always-justifying “virtue” of Nationalism, which is really what the Olympic Games are all about.*

And the coverage of the Games, before, during, and after, is all about drumming up the controversies and human-interest stories that can be squeezed out of the sweaty towels of the competitors and turned into profit. There will always be hand wringing and finger-pointing. Newscasters gotta eat, too. Yay, capitalism!

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*Side-note: In grad school during my Transnational Ritual class, I made the mistake of pointing out that the Olympic Games totally mirrors the hegemonic system of nationalism around which the world is currently organized, man. In response, my professor basically called me childish for not just accepting this as the status quo. (He had a hard-on for the Olympics because it was his “field-site,” and he couldn’t really take any analysis of it that he hadn’t thought of himself, especially not a kommie-Gramscian one. …and I may have aided in his dressing-down of me by sporting pig-tails at the time. But this does not alter the fact that he was still an asshole.)

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Meta-Topic: Animals

Perhaps this should have been posted from the get-go. Come to think of it, there should have been a little series of these “what-to-expect-categorically” posts, in order to orient the focus of this blog. But whatever. It’s happening now.

One of the main topics this blog explores (or will come to explore in more depth as it continues) is that of non-human animals in culture. This is broad, obviously, so it might be good to lay out in general terms what posts under this category might deal with in the future. The theoretical orientations and analytic tendencies will be mainly anthropological, and a little radical in cases where I become un-tethered to scholarly moorings. (Yes, we’re doing nautical metaphors, now. Animals can go on ships, too. Just roll with those waves and sail on.)

People incorporate other animals into their lives to different degrees in various ways. So too, cultures as a whole. This happens on different levels, such as discursive, physical interaction, and broad mental categorizations that can become verbally rationalized when the topic comes up. I hope to have several different series in the future that use non-human animals as their center to explore various culture issues–as well as topics that focus on animal-human relationships specifically. Indeed, there are many avenues to explore, and I just hope these forays into fauna will be as interesting for readers as they are for this writer to think about.

One can explore the tendency to personify or give human qualities to nonhuman animals–especially for use in allegories and literature in general. But this also happens everyday when people talk about animals. Or talk for them.

Another main topic I’d like to explore as this blog continues is the ways in which consumer culture uses various animals to sell things. Closely related is the use of animal imagery or culturally constructed characteristics identified with certain nonhuman animals and how they are used to signify various things. Semiotics for everyone!

Nonhuman animals can be implicated in political discourse, used to embody gender norms, symbolize anything you can think of, and deployed as terms of abuse (thank you, Edmund Leach). They are everywhere and nowhere, and we can even look at issues of agency (see the last post and a particularly good comment from the author of Instruct/Deconstruct). They are differentially valued, thought about, and interacted with based on a complex system of categories enacted daily in cultural practice, and no one animal means the same thing in two situations, for two people, in two cultures. I could go on about this for days, so perhaps I should just end by saying that if you like thinking about animals, stay tuned…

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A Fragment: Practice Makes Meaning(?)

I had this half-baked thought back in March, when I read the headline of a news story about the possible impending government shut-down in the U.S. It’s sort of still relevant, topically, and the argument I jump to from the topic is almost always relevant, so here we go:

In the news story, the possibility of the (then) current government shut-down was automatically compared to that of 1996. Maybe this is a valid parallel, but it might not be. The contexts of the shut-downs, the possible causes, will necessarily be very different. They are located in different socio-historical moments, after all. But in mass-mediated news, even publicly-funded news outlets, those contextual details get lost in favor of familiar narratives and neatly packaged parallels. And then future historical narrative–as presented by the media, at least, and perhaps high school text books, will remember the parallel and constructed similarities of the incidents, if it remembers these two incidents at all. (Maybe they won’t–maybe they’ll stress the differences. I can’t predict the future. But the two incidents will, in all likelihood, be compared and packaged together in some way. The will reference one another and thus imply similarity.)

The larger point is that, regardless of context, political discourse and the way in which it is structured, both internally and as a genre with all its connections and within the wider culture–and importantly, the ways in which it is mediated to various segments of society (pundits, the public, the politicians themselves, etc)–makes these instances meaningful. In this case, the mediated political discourse makes the parallel a talking point, maybe even an accepted truth, because of the way that political discourse and the media frame events–stripping them of context to make that neat parallel. (This argument just got dangerously circular, but hopefully it’ll pull out.)

Other types of narrative and rhetorical tricks and performatives exist as well, parallelism is just one of them. One easily understood and accepted by the masses, perhaps because it is so often relied upon to make the news familiar and digestible. To make the masses return to particular outlets for their updates, to make students remember things in history classes. Familiar narrative structures win over the unexpected and un-categorizable. The latter is just an unexplainable horror until it can be narratively stretched and twisted until it fits into a safely shaped box.

Anyway, one point I want to return to is that use makes meaning. Saying it and repeating it makes something true: political discourse and historical narratives like patterns. Patterns are safe. And the patterns become reality. The idea that meaning comes from use is a tired argument, itself, and the basis for a lot of anthropology, but it seems to hold up when confronted with fieldwork data. (But perhaps we anthros are just making that fit into our own familiar, underlying-premise box. Disciplinary existential crisis warning!) Back to the topic that started this whole fragmented musing, reporting things makes them relevant to the debate; to the voters; to the election. The media and the pundits do have power: they have the power to shape the debate. And on a larger scale, the historians have the power to shape the grand narrative. Not sure exactly the ways in which those two entities are related, but they are…maybe someone else has the energy to unpack that messy box.
Returning to the potentially obvious conclusion, meaning comes from use, and performativity. Practice proves it. Maybe.

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