The Differences Faces of Anthropology: Domming as Anthropology

Anthropology often grows in unexpected places. This time around, Melissa Febos, the author of Whip Smart and an ex-dominatrix, declared herself a “cultural anthropologist.” While in college, Melissa worked in a S/M dungeon for three years and her book is a gripping memoir of her experiences being a trusted partner for the lawyers, bankers, rabbis and bus drivers who have a secret passion for being sexually dominated (without engaging in real sex). Without conducting formal participant observation but collecting rich memories fueled by exhilaration and a good pay, she emerged from an exotic world carefully tucked away from the public eye to write a memoir full of keen cultural, social and psychological insights. This one I like a lot:

“For many, it was a very private experience. They were often led to the dungeon by their own desires and fantasies — ones that they didn’t feel safe or brave enough to explore or voice in their personal lives. The dungeon felt like a safe haven, their domme a trusted person with whom to explore their obsessions. I think even the fact of it being a business transaction lent them some feeling of safety. It is an emotionally vulnerable experience to divulge your secret desires to someone. That it was our job to hear about such things was comforting on some level. I never made them feel strange or wrong for having their desires, and I was never shocked. Or on the rare occasions that I was, I certainly never acted shocked. I saw a lot of clients attain more self-acceptance through the experience. I certainly did myself.”

Melissa’s “anthropological” experience was fully immersive, reciprocal, transcultural and relational. She ended up on the fringe of society, enjoyed every bit of it and worked back to the boring but promising mainstream. Her journey was not driven by academic curiosity and did not involve the typical anthropological sublimation of the forbidden desire to “go native” into a “thick description” of a culture but by a deep social and psychological context which gives Melissa’s narrative the authenticity and nativity many academic ethnographies do not have. Actually, Whip Smart reminds me not so much of anthropology but of interpretative sociology as exemplified by Howard Becker‘s experience working as a real dance musician and subsequently writing Outsiders.

anthropology
Melissa Febos
pop culture
popular anthropology

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Personifying Body Parts: Politics and Power in Russia

The theme of personified body parts has surfaced again, now in conjunction with Russia’s newly elected president Vladimir Putin. In the style of Gogol’s Nose, the Moscow Museum of Erotic Art created a puppet show portraying the scenario in which Putin lost his penis and turned into his own impotent (and democratic) nemesis, anti-Putin. This is a satirical take on Russia’s constant confusion between political and physical power and on Putin’s fascination with virile power, as documented in this gallery of Putin-as-strongman photos showing the Russian leader half naked and/or engaged in various extreme masculine pursuits.

anthropology
Politics
Russia
Satire

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Personifying Body Parts: Angelina Jolie’s Leg’s Twitter Account

Angelina Jolie’s leg provocatively exposed to the eyes of millions at the 2012 Oscars Awards Ceremony has established its own Twitter account. It joins Gogol’s Nose and Addams Family’s Thing as examples of famous disembodied body parts leading a “human” life of their own. It remains to be seen if Jolie’s leg will overcome Jolie’s lips as a fetishized synecdoche of the actress herself. In the meantime, it will stand as a monument to the grossly outdated overindulgence of the Oscars.

American culture
Body parts
Twitter

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Death and Desire: Coffin Advertising

Another instance of paradoxical pairing of death and desire. Coffin companies such as Lindner and Cofani Funebri advertise their product through promotional merchandise (calendars) featuring stunning models scantily covered in lingerie and body paint.

Via Los Cuadernos de Julia and LiveJournal.

Advertising
Death

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Social TV

I’m in Manhattan and my wife and daughter are in Boston. For a couple of months we’ll be seeing each other on weekends. In the meantime, she called me last night and asked what I was doing. I was doing some web-trawling for a project I’m working on, so this is what I told her I was doing. But I was watching TV at the same time. She heard the noise at the background and asked what I was watching. I told her that I was watching “Bobby Fischer Against the World” on HBO. She exploded with laughter: “I’m watching it, too!!!” And today Adweek has an article precisely on what my wife and I need to get, namely “second screen apps.”

If Internet challenged TV’s dominance as the chief channel of content sharing between companies and consumers and created the schizophrenia of watching TV with a laptop on your lap, social media promises to restore the unity of consumer experience by sharing the news of whatever you are watching. Not just of whatever interferes with your watching. Bobby Fischer would’ve liked it, too.

General

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Wings of the Rockies Air and Space Museum: Cold War and Space Race Influence on Consumer Culture

Wings of the Rockies Air and Space Museum in eastern Denver is a hangar full of military airplanes and their 24-cylinder engines. Run by volonteers, who fight for every dollar they can make off of entrance fees and merchandise and for every second of your time, the museum nevertheless is full of pride and passion. An elite sphere of life, air-and-space industry is responsible for a number of consumer innovations. The museum prides on first making it possible to accomplish a round-the-world flight in only 37 hours and then bringing to people’s homes GPS, computer chips and space blankets. A pair of Ray-Ban aviators from 1937 constitutes one of the iconic items of pop culture that can be seen on U.S. generals as well as on pow-wow dancers. I was suprised not to find WD-40 among the

examples. (Since 1953, this magic lubricant developed for the NASA achieved almost 100% awareness among the consumers, while yielding niche markers such as sailing and the military to more specilaized products such as McLube, PB Blaster, etc.) In Supercapitalism, Robert Reich documents the process by which

technological innovations originally developed for the needs of the military and NASA poured into the consumer market in the 1970s. Internet was one of them. (I remember Gene Parta of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe recalling that there was an e-mail system installed between the divisions of this Cold War propaganda radio station in the 1980s, long before e-mail became a consumer product.) The importance of the collapse of silos between the military and commercial departments for the marketplace is hard to overestimate, for it resulted in the unprecedented empowerment of the consumer against the employee and the disintegration of the traditional corporation and the trade-union. Swiss Army knife, aviator jacket, camo style backpacks, pants and jackets, Commander’s watch (komandirskie chasy) in Russia among others, are some of the more supreficial retail examples of military chic.

consumption
Corporation
Military
Museums

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The Museum of Weird Consumer Culture

BK Bag

I’ve come across an interesting page from an Indiana University Anthropology professor, Richard Wilk. Wilk collects instances of Western consumer goods in tribal contexts, tawdry replicas of indigenous art, idiotic products catering to silly human desires and preposterous ads. As a person who has experience working in both museums and ad agencies, I can appreciate the crossover between the two. There’s something toxic about these products, no matter what materials they are made of. A ridiculous ad that refuses to disintegrate in public consciousness, a pair of artificial testicles for a dog that will forever remain in a mental landfield, and a Singapore-made “True American Taste” McCoffee that screams phony. What do museums preserve: something good and fragile that we, as humans, are afraid to lose, or something utterly caustic that we’re upset about, want to keep under our control and give it at least a semblance of authenticity? What do advertising agencies promote: a great product that people absolutely need to have around (but haven’t they already found out about it from friends?) or a poor product that needs to be salvaged from the wrath of God?

Richard Wilk’s sphere of academic interest encompasses Mesoamerica, American Southwest, economic anthropology, media studies, human ecology and consumer culture.

Advertising
consumption
Ecology
Museums

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Why Great Planners Have to Be Smart?

Through Cubemate‘s guiding hand, I came across Watson Phillips Norman‘s Todd Norman’s thoughts on planning and creativity. The gist of the article is that people like one double first from Oxford in physics and mathematics are bad planners because they’re too smart, while humble and empathetic enthusiasts of pop culture and media who occupy a grey zone between creativity and ignorance are great planners because they are dumb. A good test of this hypothesis would involve a generation of systematic hiring of Ph.D.-carrying anthropologists (oddly omitted by Todd), archaeologists (understandably omitted by Todd), sociologists, psychologists and other social scientists for planning positions around the globe and an improved curriculum for these young professionals that would include applied training for product design, advertsing, PR and business strategy consultancy. Anecdotal cases of Nobel laureauts not being able to establish a rapport with an art director are hardly convincing. Alternatively, in order to fully exploit their teams of planners and not relegate them to self-deprecating advisors to all-powerful creatives, ad agencies should start working with the clients and the consumers at an earlier stage in the evolution of the relationship between the latter two. Product innovation, business strategy, field research into corporate and consumer culture are just the few trends that may help “planners” find their unique identity, an identity rooted not in imagination and not in rationality (both of these remain within the “known”) but in the discovery of the “unknown” about human culture and behavior. That’s how originally anthropology built its brand equity.

I attached a photo of a pen-as-toothbrush that I’ve picked up at a dentist office for a reason. This mutant is, in my opinion, a symbol of what a planner, a strategist, and an applied anthropologist is. He has to be able to inspire creatives and to remain detached from their creative process just to let it flow naturally and not be bummed by a “wrong course.” But on the other end, he has to be able to author a brand/business strategy, a cultural analysis of a political campaign, a semiotic analysis of old ads, and a case study of an ad campaign that he’s just let go of in order to recapture it later on a new level of execution. Finally he should be prepared to write a book of his own experiences doing all that. There’s definitely a grain of truth in Todd’s article, and a good balance of hardcore analytics with serendipity makes a great planner, but the wonderful workings of this mechanism still need to be explicated in order to salvage Todd’s thoughts from falling into a grey zone between banality and failure.

Account planning
anthropology

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Anthropology and Account Planning

My book

My book entitled “The Genius of Kinship: The Phenomenon of Human Kinship and the Global Diversity of Kinship Terminologies” is finally out from Cambria Press. Cambria Press has been professional and fast, and I am glad I could talk to them not only as an anthropologist but also as a marketer. The book is available for purchase from Amazon.com. It means a lot to me and to those people who shared the toil of proving a Newtonian idea to Platonic academics. But what I am trying to do today is not to pontificate on the delights of successful scholarship but to understand why I got hired by an advertising agency. It’s quite a leap from kinship terminologies to account planning, isnt it? Yes, I wrote this book three years ago (then peer reviews, editing and waiting), and since then I’ve read a lot on culture and consumption, but still… What’s the connection? Overtime I’ve worked with or talked to a bunch of account planners. We both seemed to focus on the same thing: culture. Account planning as a representative of the “voice of the consumer” and a subsidiary to creative agency work emerged in the late 1960s. That happened around the time when anthropologists decided to take “the native’s point of view” and dropped out of business, military and the government. Anthropologists became enamored with their worldwide humanistic mission and hence unwilling to cooperate with the government or the corporation. Anthropologists believe that all cultures are constructed but they refuse to be part of this construction. They prefer to keep the cycle “student-teacher” closed. These days account planners know more about ongoing pop culture, media and technology than an academic anthropologist. They are realistic, optimistic, competent, ironic and professional. But then all the account planners I’ve met are dropouts from various graduate programs: drama, comparative literature, law or medicine. They became disenchanted with the manistream and tapped into their childhood fantasies. Or, they became disenchanted with their childhood dreams because dreams do not pay the bills.

Anthropologists who enter business have some catching up to do. But they bring into adversting agencies, design shops and manufacturing corporations that subtle thing called authorship. In a world driven by ownership, with all the hierarchies and bureaucracies stemming from it, authorship is rare but increasingly valuable. Anthropologists in business are capable of generating content from bottom up (i.e., without taking anything for granted and deriving a truth from signs only) that adds to the traditional creative content and helps define in every specific case where a brand ends and a culture begins, what is a good and what is a service, who is the consumer and who is the producer, who is the manager and who is an employee, who is the investor and who is the entrepreneur, etc. This analytical job leaves the cultural code bare and allows the creatives to recombine it into a new unique whole. Culture is permeated by a kind of mystical kinship that makes this kind of analysis and this kind of synthesis possible.

Account planning
anthropology
Authorship
Kinship
Ownership

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Built to Last: Victorian Laptop and Western Nostalgia

Just picked it from Datamancer. Previous sightings include Newsweek’s article (from October 31, 2007) on Richard Nagy and steampunk technology. Features: mahogany-stained pine, leather wrist rests, clock-winding key, brass claw feet. Style: steampunk, DIY, user-generated innovation.

Steampunk Laptop

And this is a “old-time photo” booth from the ongoing National Western Stock Show in Denver. Anyone can have his image inserted into an Old West picture.

Old-Time Photo

The appropriation of the past takes different forms and has different avatars. Since the early 1990s steampunk recreates the world as it was seen by Jules Verne and Herbert G. Wells in the late 19th century. Probably because their science fiction (remember Captain Nemo’s submarine?) came true in the 20th century. (Even Wells’s Time Machine, which was published in 1895, coincided with the Lumiere brothers’ screening of their first motion picture, i.e. the first time machine.) Western nostalgia has a longer pedigree; it goes all the way to Buffalo Bill, and the imitations of a Wild West show can still be seen in North American rodeos and fairs. While products and people are disposable, brands are built to last.

brands
steampunk
Wild West

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