Buffalo Bill, Titanic, Beowulf and the Russian Orthodox Church: An Anthropologist’s Thanksgiving Weekend
We had Russian friends from Houston and Stanford over for the Thanksgiving weekend. Thinking back about what we did in the Great Denver Area, one thing continues to come to mind. The weekend was comprised of disparate events that nevertheless showed strange family resemblances. We visited the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave on the Lookout Mountain in the morning and then rushed to catch the Titanic IMAX movie and artifact exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (formerly the Denver Museum of Natural History). Close by the museum was the All-Saints of Russia Orthodox Church, and we went there for a vespers mass. We finished our day by catching a late night showing of Beowulf. We didn’t plan it to be this way, it just happened so: from an icon of West American entrepreneurialism, mass marketing and showmanship to an ill-fated luxury ocean liner that has been slowly coming back to life for the past 20 years to a place of worship guarded by ancient Russian saints to a cutting-edge mocap jewel built on a pre-Christian European saga, the themes of death, revival and immortality alongside globalization, migration, virual space and localization ran through all these events. One recalls Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope (borrowed into literary studies from Einstein’s theory of relativity through the medium of Russian physiologist Alexei A. Ukhtomsky): “time thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise space becomes charged and responsive to movements of time, plot and history.” Not being much of a poet (or a believer or a movie junkie or a Western pioneer or a serious Russian emigrant), I gathered my scattered thoughts into a some kind of verse.
Between a church and an embassy
Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull
Between a sunken boat and a museum
Between memory and motion capture
There is a vast field of unintended meaning
Of which a whole life can be spun.
From Egyptian mummies to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to the BODIES and Body Worlds traveling exhibitions to now the Titanic exhibit, display/deathplay is a dark abyss of revenue. As we entered the Titanic exhibit – which is a simulated Titanic ship with portholes, cabins and luxury dining rooms – we received “boarding passes.” Every boarding pass carried on it the name and short bio of a Titanic passenger. First class, second class, third class. Thus you become a customized Titanic passenger. At the end of the exhibit you skim the lists of survivors and victims to determine your destiny. I was an agriculture inspector from Sweden traveling to Illinois to learn more about botany. I found myself among the lost. As I walked through the crowded “ship,” I saw an old razor blade in a paper sheath (they don’t make those anymore, but I remember my father using one), personal documents, perfectly preserved au gratin saucers, a leather boot, a menu and other memorabilia. The exhibit gradually turns into a gift shop where the replicas of these and other memorabilia are offered at high prices. Walls featured the details of lives of several passengers adding to the experience of personalization, identification and reincarnation. Intricate computer simulations told a story of hitting an iceberg. The ship sank in 1912, there is still a survivor left out there, and on all other occasions one would have a feeling that he visited a graveyard or a looted cemetery. Looting a grave and bringing back the dead is sacrilegeous in our culture, but Titanic is a special case. Since its rediscovery in 1985, a consistent effort has been invested in recovering the historical minutia, reconstructing the technical details of its collapse, retrieving the artifacts buried on the sea bottom at 12,536 feet, making their replicas and selling them as “gifts” and reenacting the lives of the Titanic passengers in movies, musicals and now exhibitions. Commodifying, marketing and selling Titanic is a way to deal with death that has taken cosmic proportions and destroyed a ship that was a model of Euro-American society at the turn of the century. Titanic was the Hobbsean Commonwealth devoured by the original Hebraic Leviathan. A hundred years later the new Western man armed with Russian submersibles and American commercialism perform the ritual of requickening the dead social capital.
Traveling across a huge body of water is an old synonym of death. This metaphor can be found in Greek myths, in the perceptions of West African slaves transported to the West Indies in the 16th century, in the Makah Indian ritual captured by Jim Jarmusch in Dead Man, in the reminiscences of Buffalo Bill’s Show Indians who traveled to Europe at the end of the 19th century, and in the old northern European tradition of putting a corpse on a ship as portrayed in Beowulf. Once at a party at Natalia Mislavsky’s house in Redwood City I ran into a Russian guy who worked in hi-tech industry in the Silicon Valley. An immigrant to the U.S. for thirty years, he said: “You live twice, once in your homeland and then once abroad.” In one phrase, he plotted life and death onto the world map. (Incidentally early American educators such as Stanley Hall and John Dewey were also concerned that immigration broke the lives of Americans into two halves making the U.S. in sync with aging rather than youthfulness.) When I left the Russian Orthodox Church in Denver I gave it another thought. We always think of church in opposition to the state. For a Russian in America, the Durkheimian opposition between the sacred and the profane is clearly represented by the Church vs. the Embassy/Consulate. If two countries enter a war with each other, they call off their diplomatic service. The Russian Orthodox Church in America continued to exist even after the contacts with the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union had been severed. There are two different temporalities involved here – an Embassy/Consulate is a current extension of the State, a church is an instantiation of the Church in the past and in the future. No surprise the corporate culture of many a successful company (take Nike or Red Bull or Google) tends to look a bit like a cult. Cult means continuity, or the survival of a corporation with the passing of time and the stretching of space.
Interactivity is at the core of new marketing. Consumers have to be commodified before they start buying products. Titanic the exhibit is much more profitable than Titanic the movie. The same concerns the employees or in the case of Beowulf by Robert Zemeckis, the actors. Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Ray Winstone, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich and others participated only on the motion capture stage, then their images were modified and manipulated by a team of digital artists. I wonder how they felt watching their own ghosts recreating a findamental story of life, death, love, fear and intergenerational continuity in an effort to attract the new consumer. In tribal cultures, copying is associated with death, hence the proverbial resistance of a “primitive” man to having his photograph taken or his sacred ceremonies recorded.