Archive for category Digital Anthropology

Part 3: Movement Between Cities

London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Corfu, Meteora, Katerini

March 29 – April 18th

(Part One: Every City That Ever Was)

(Part Two: Mutual Awareness and Casual Exposure)

This series spans opposite sides of the summer: when it began, I was in London, getting ready to return to America for my masters’ fieldwork, describing a central European trip I took with a friend from Iowa. As I finish that story, I’m back in a London, dissertation complete, planning what to do next.  The time immediately after completing a degree (or any major project) can seem too much like a vacation: after long hours of hard work, structure suddenly disappears, leaving a more abstract sense of pressure with the next challenges. But just as in a job search, the harder parts of a vacation involve knowing where to look – and what to look for – in an environment that is by its nature unfamiliar.

Being in a distant city creates something of a paradox, and the city is (by nature) a creature of density and familiarity. In Flesh and Stone (1994), Richard Sennet describes bodies moving “passively, desensitized in space” (p.18) across the contemporary urban landscape, conquering ever-greater stretches of land experiencing it less vividly. “Space has thus become a means to the end of pure motion…the driver wants to go through the space, not to be aroused by it” (p.17-18). Despite his doom and gloom on the desensitization wrought by travel, Sennet’s larger point about the Western city is that its ideals were once marked by bodily contact and mutual awareness, whereas today it is a place where people can be together, separate. “Once a mass of bodies packed tightly together in the centers of cities, the crowd today has dispersed” (21), geographically, globally, idealistically. One of the ironies of travel is that even if the journey is ignored, destinations come with the obligation to observe. You can travel a distance by train or car through one countryside, without looking out the window, to take a tour bus through another.

Sennet opens with a quotation from Aristotle’s Poetics: “A city is composed of different kinds of men: similar people cannot bring a city into existence.” As a leisure traveler, one becomes ‘different people’ in perhaps the most literal sense – the one who has come because the place is different and renowned, without necessarily ingraining oneself in the community life of the area.

My family got lucky on the days we picked to visit my sister in Minnesota; we heard that the leaves hit their peak that weekend, which we got to see along the open fields that turn to tree-lined corridors on the drive from Iowa northward. There are valleys, trees, bends and lakes everywhere around Duluth, the city’s hillsides sloping toward Lake Superior. My sister drives past them every day on her way to work, lingering just a little less (all things considered) than the tourists in booked-up hotels who flock there on the weekends this time of year.

Duluth’s downtown is distinctly solid stone and brick, built in an industrial boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and still quite wealthy. The view over Lake Superior from its hillsides are expansive waters, a bridge to Wisconsin, industrial plateaus and residential peninsulas. Vistas like this are amazing but no less plentiful throughout the world: a lookout from on high recalls – haven’t we been here before? Water is water, right? It all flows together eventually. Such is another pardox of travel: you go to a place because its different, and find yourself only able to compare it to things that have come before. It should also go without saying that if one wants to preserve these views, they are easy to photograph casually but hard to capture in their immensity.

Devin Castle, Bratislava

Here, somewhat haphazardly, the story connects back with Europe, and a bend in the Danube at the ruins of Devin Castle, on the outskirts of Bratislava, easily accessible by the local bus lines. The remaining walls of the castle look solid, even if the absence of other walls clearly states the challenges of age, while along the road that runs along the Danube below the castle one immediately runs into an abandoned hotel. The valley and the river beyond are remarkable in how undisturbed they look, all things considered. Water, then trees on a plateau to the horizon.

When Duluth was rising, Bratislava was called Pressburg and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The fallout from WorldWar I created Czechslovakia (which encompassed Prague) and sent the majority Germans and Hungarians (split at just over 40% of the population each by the 1910 census) on a permanent vacation. Czechoslovakia peacefully split in 1992, leaving Bratislava – by then mostly Slovak – the capital of Slovakia and Prague the capital of the Czech Republic. While Bratislava is noticeably more subdued than Prague – owing, no doubt to the rain and its less tourism-centric economy – the squares of both cities were marked by Easter Markets in the season (see also, Part Two).

The Sedlac ossuary (which we visited a few days before Bratislava) can be viewed as a parody of Sennet’s ideals about the ancient city. Located at Kutna Hora (close to Prague, and like Duluth, also, a city whose wealth was tied to its mineral deposits), the church is most vividly marked by the 1870 flourishes of local craftsman František Rint: the conspicuous arrangement of the bones of 40,000 to 70,000 people, from the 13th century to the 19th , into a chandelier, stacks, coats-of-arms, and other displays.  In its immediacy, contemporary thoughts can place it terms of devotion, perversion, or simple practicality; one could find parallels, for example, in the hearts-made-of-skulls in the Paris catacombs, Ed Gein’s furniture, or (really) any number of global funerary practices. Especially around Easter it is a direct, macabre vision of the promise of the Christian resurrection. If one believes literally, this is the valley of dry bones, compacted into a single room for easy perusal. Or, as a counterpoint from one of the atheists I’ve spent time with during my fieldwork, a former undertaker – “once you’ve seen a three-day bloat, you realize no one’s coming back from that.”

Lantern lit purple for Holy Week on Corfu. On Saturday, to mark the Resurrection, the lanterns are changed to white, the color they remain until the next Holy Week.

Owing to the Orthodox Church having its Easter a week later than most other denominations’ and my travel schedule, my Easter season lasted a week longer than usual; I celebrated the holiday a second time on Corfu, a sizable Greek island off the country’s west coast. I stayed with a friend at her sister’s flat; their mom had sent a mass of food across the country (from their home in Katerini, on the east coast, and whom I would meet later in the week) with other family friends, who also shared the apartment space for the holidays.

Corfu is a holiday destination for Easter, appropriate to the mix of family, friends, and tourists that we, collectively, represented. What struck me most about the holiday was the extent to which the ritual is unified across several levels: expansively, via Christianity; nationally, via mass media; culturally, via the shared ritual; and locally, via the swelling of the city with the other friends and strangers who meet there.

The weekend is awash with the performance of traditions, including the midnight feast on Saturday following the dietary restrictions of Lent. As I mentioned, in the case of our meals, the food had been brought, literally, from the other side of the country. After this – and  throughout the weekend, at houses and in the streets – people play games of cracking hard-boiled eggs  (dyed red for Jesus’ blood) together to see whose can last the longest. The same night – with candles lit from a flame flown from Jerusalem – hundreds gathered near at the beach. We sang carols; the priest chanted beneath a gazebo, and fireworks went off, all while we tried our best to shield our flames from the salty sea breeze . These traditions – which in their immediacy, create an immense emotional, liminal effect – are reinforced as a part of things larger through the casual background noise of mass media, the televised images of celebrities, everyday people and priests throughout the country performing the same actions.

At the same time, the experience of the holidays Corfu is intensely local. The city’s bands march through the narrow, Venetian-influenced streets, performing sadder music Friday that builds to triumph on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday morning, vases of all sizes – with messages written by local organizations – are thrown out the window of a downtown building. There are two stories I heard of the origin of the custom. One to scare off Satan in time for Jesus’ arrival; two that it was a Venetian spring cleaning custom. Whatever we’re supposed to feel about the event or the economy, the rituals throughout the weekend spill onto the sidewalks as people eat or drink, some and others not observing the prohibitions of Lent.

Corfu Streets, after the vases fall

There are so many things no one has bothered to write about in any systematic fashion. In anthropology, few people had written about play. Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938) stood as one of the most extensive treatments, parts of which I’ve been thoroughly engaged with throughout the summer. Huizinga is, rightfully taken to task on the issue of boundaries, his portrayal of play as an activity existing in a ‘magic circle’, unbounded from ordinary existence; it is (of course) categorically not, as most famously demonstrated by Clifford Geertz’ piece on the Balinese cockfight, which described the linkages between the game and life outside, the prestige gained from one’s bird winning and the fact that people bet on their own kin group (for examples). Critiquing that same notion in modern ideas – that anything can be categorized to the point of separation – has been a recurrent theme of post-modernity; so much of modernity is the systematic putting of things into categories (“psychology” over here and “physics” over there), while post-modernity has served as an extended mediation on difficult this is in practice (see: deconstruction, Bruno Latour’s We Never Been Modern, etc etc).

Spire of St. Spyridon’s, above the markets (Corfu)

If we view Huizinga as a myth-extrapolater rather than an analyst, we can allow him some indulgences, as at least the myth of play as separate from ordinary life has remained much the same across the last century: play is often considered part of leisure, video games are considered unproductive even by those who find them fun, etc ad nausem. The points Huizinga steers his larger circle toward, further, also bear consideration: a) that play exists before other forms of communication and b) the ritual process (to him, a serious matter) shares many similarities with play: the willful assumption of other roles; suspension of ordinary norms; the entrance to a different (if not entirely separate) world; in a way, a sense of ‘pretend.’

Throughout the streets of Corfu, ritual and tourism and friends and prayer all converge and overlap. In Prague and Bratislava, tension – without a local guide to connect us to the festivities – held as my travel partner and I drifted through Easter, with the markets and their ornate, hollow delicate eggs for sale sale alongside the sex dice. Reaching Bratislava for Good Friday, we drifted through the small chapels, stopping to observe and sometimes to pray. Are we tourists, worshippers, or something in between – or are all these things not playful in Huizinga’s ? No one speaks in the chapels. If you feel a lack of belonging there, they can become an echo chamber for a (very modern Western) self-doubt in one’s own authenticity, as if anyone else’s internal thoughts could be known but to God.

Sennet rather pessimistically (or at least modestly) concludes: “In a diverse world, each person cannot explain what he or she is feeling, who he or she is, to the other….[the body’s] pain comes from God’s demand to live together as exiles” (376). Yet I would argue that in enacting the tourism pilgrimage is to play at these things, too, to experience them as inexact visions in alternate, temporary lives.

Monasteries at Meteora

Back on Corfu, my friend’s sister asked, “So you study people, right?”

We were waiting for a bus to take me to the outskirts of the city, to Pontikonisi, “Mouse Island,” a popular tourist destination and the only building on which is a small monastery.

“I do.”

I am not sure who goes to the island anymore; battered by high winds and tall waves, it seems most meant to be observed from the land.

“Aren’t people…complicated?” she asked, as the bus rolled in and the thought had to end.

See here for more pictures and detailed descriptions of:

Corfu, Meteora, and Katerini

Bratislava and Budapest

Dresden, Prague and Kutna Hora

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Part 2: Mutual Awareness and Casual Exposure

London, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Corfu, Katerini

March 29 – April 18th

(Read Part One)

How long do you have to spend in a place to know it, or (at least) to make some worthwhile pronouncement about it and/or your experience with it? Anthropology says about a year and a half – that’s the standard length of time for doctoral fieldwork. Journalism often gets around the challenges of observation and authority by keeping a great many statements as quotes and attributions. Term papers go by the rule that if someone else said it, it carries weight. Yet limited personal experience with the new, exciting and different is something people is one people often feel compelled to share: IE, travel, something (especially on this blog) I’ve spent a great deal of my time writing about.

A friend of mine, a fellow Midwesterner who visited Europe last year, said that London “feels like it’s the center of something,” a statement with which I concur after having lived there for a year: the city is comfortable with its gravity and has a notable magnetic field. The thing that still strikes me as most endemically (if not uniquely) London as I experienced it is the incredible international diversity of the inner city, the emigrants, expats, natives, tourists, and travelers and the various shades of how one considers him or herself to be any of the above. London is a place that, comfortably embodied as itself, thrives on thoughts of elsewheres. The university scene in London is exemplary of that: I am in a program(me) with very few British students, and even fewer second or third-generation British. At one seminar, I looked across a room of 60 students and counted 40 different countries represented; the remarkable thing here is not the variety, but how commonplace it is. A port town and the former seat of Empire, a place that have always been enmeshed in international exchange, London today feels like a place where the world settles down for a time and then moves on.

“But that’s every city,” said an academic, visiting from Scandinavia, who I met at a conference. “Tell me something unique.”

The author, in front of the Olympics countdown clock at Trafalgar Square. Here’s what the Square looks like in Tweets.

London is, of course, getting ready to show itself to the rest of the world for the Olympics, at a cost currently estimated at £24 billion ($38 billion USD), up from an original bid of £2.4 billion – changes which operate on “selective logics of inclusion” for both internationals and locals (for a study on potential socio-economic and environmental impact, see here). This international welcome further comes as changes in policy are making it more difficult for foreigners like me to stay and work in the country. The current bonus one gets for paying overseas tuition and graduating from a UK university: until your student visa runs out to find a job (for me, January), or go into the general Tier 2 pool, in which case you must not only be the best person for the job but the only person, as employers are legally required to take a minimally qualified EU candidate over candidates from anywhere else. I don’t think this will change the character of England’s capital much, taken as a whole, but it will create frustrations for a lot of folks looking for a good life and a good living.

The Olympics will obviously be a thoroughly massive and momentous event, but it should also be noted that a common local sentiment regarding them is a fear of logistics: its going to be peak hour on the Tube all day, every day, and twice and packed. We who spend a lot of time here (native born, immigrant, expat, etc) love this city and most of us are totally stoked with the rest of the world visiting if you’d kindly form an orderly queue and not do it all the hell at once. Much like the experience of watching the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee flotilla along the riverside, struggling to see over the heads of the rows in front of you, its a thing that will likely be at its most accessible as televised spectacle, perhaps from somewhere else in Europe, funded by a sublet flat. My current plan: work on my thesis from the relative isolation of Iowa, where I am at present.

The Olympics, however – amidst all its televised glory, logistical complications, and legal clampdowns – highlight part of what makes the questions of my first paragraph so pronounced: ours is an age of mutual awareness and casual exposure.

As I mentioned in my previous post, part of the reason why this blog hasn’t been updated in so long is the migration of personal-storytelling-as-mass-broadcast to Facebook, and from the written blog post to the topical photo album. Among the bits of research I’ve become aware of as a student of Digital Anthropology, David Frohlich divides photography into three eras: in the first – roughly until 1920 – photos were used for documentation. Then, with the introduction of the personal camera, there was a shift toward ‘capturing memories,’ the “Kodak moments” of our families’ lives. Now, with the Internet, the photo is used as a means of outright communication as we regularly post pictures to discuss our lives, to tell jokes, to make political statements, to share the significant with the mundane. This shift is part of the social dynamic that underlies this excellent article disparaging a site I still happen to make frequent use of: “How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet.” Simply put, Flickr is for sharing pictures with people you don’t know, and one of the more pervasive myths of the Internet is that everybody knows everybody.

Eric Fischer’s tourist photo map of London, based on data from the Geotaggers World Atlas. Blue dots represent photos taken by locals, red by tourists, and yellow by people who could be either.

The Orloj (built: 1410, photo: 2005)

Vacation pictures were once stereotyped as dreaded albums and slide trays, ritual abuses inflicted by overactive hosts to their captive dinner guests.  You’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, you’ve seen your neighbor, and while the pictures of them together may hold an important memory and proof of experience for him/her, the interest you have in seeing the two together may vary.  The Internet – however – changed how one shares images, what one shares, and the concept of a ‘vacation’ and how you bring your friends with you – or the world to your friends. Pictures now appear limitless, but their quantity (and the times we take them) spread unevenly in time and space. I think of the preponderance of pictures I take when I’m on the road, along routes with which I have only tenuous, mass-mediated connections. versus the fewer, focused shots of places in which I’ve stayed for extended periods of time. This is vividly illustrated by Eric Fischer – who, using geotagged information – put together these maps  of where temporary versus extended residents have taken pictures. As far as the Internet is concerned, the global image of Prague has barely been photographed by any locals (other cities relevant to this series: Berlin and Budapest).

Modern-day variation?

Modern tourism is an act of possession, about seeing things – sometimes wondrous things – and appropriating them as part of our lives, as images and experiences that often converge around recognizable landmarks. In Prague, that is the Old Town Square, the heart of the tourist section, where you do as everyone does: stop and look at the Orloj, the astronomical clock. Built in 1410, it is the oldest timepiece of its kind still working, a rotating and revolving display of hours, minutes, the Zodiac, phases of moon, and the sun, with a procession of medieval vanities and saints rung by Death Itself. As any guidebook will tell you (apocryphally?) the clock was so beautiful that the local leaders blinded its creator lest he surpass it with a subsequent display in some other town. So the clock goes, and – as it has for over four hundred years –the cosmic procession continues, and all the tourists stop and look – as I did seven years ago, and I did this April, as if we can freeze time into something we can take with us.

The Old Town Square is a center for memento commerce, a nexus that one wanders into (purposefully and randomly) on the way to see any number of other sites.  On my trip the Easter markets were set up, surrounding the statue of church reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415 for challenging the Church (many reforms he suggested were later pressed by Martin Luther) and whose death sparked nearly two decades of war.  This is the heart, too, of a visual performance of place, stacked with things seasonal and mundane, hundreds of varieties of hand-painted  hollow eggs and things labeled “Prague,” among which are: wooden dragon puppets, refrigerator magnets, Prague condoms, Prague sex dice, witches, crystal, the same “Born to Be Wild” shirts as were emblazoned with my summer camp’s logo over a decade ago and other quick-press themes (“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to “[place]”), plush toys of Zdeněk Miler’s “Mole” character, Mole books. Like the stacks of Royal Wedding kitsch in London that are now being supplanted with soon-to-be-discounted Queen’s Jubilee and London Olympics 2012, these are the marks of a particular image of place, their authenticity drawn from memories and associations of having been procured of a specific location.

The more we walk past that clock, however, the more we ignore it, blend in with it, and ingrain ourselves in a city on its own terms (even if largely as a part of its tourist ecology). Much as in Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus – that the environment contains cues that compel our behavior – we absorb things that surround us, and in growing comfortable with them ignore, turning attention to logistics and life and the background.The notion of difference – and exposure thereto – has been part of what has driven anthropology, too, in tension with the value placed on understanding through length of contact; the tendency to be unaware of so many of the norms of our environments, because of how ingrained they are, to be ‘homeblind.’ Or, to return – a similar sentiment expressed in an oft-quoted line by T.S. Elliot (a Midwesterner who moved to London), that we may “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

For my own region, I remembered the space but forgot about the humidity. You can’t photograph the air, even though it feels like wet fabric in the summer. I flew from London to Minnesota and from there drove. It just gets hotter and more humid the further south you go – through Iowa, to Kansas, to Oklahoma, all the way through a continent of seasonal green parted by the blacktop, spending hours in a moving box of air conditioning. Back in the U.S. (at least for the summer), the visuals seem fixed, and so much right where I left it in Iowa, just a little older, even as the air reminds me less of my own memories than the tropical nightmare of a flooded London in Ballard’s The Drowned World, the city where, in reality, I had left changing sky and unchanging buildings.

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So I Moved to London to Study Digital Anthropology

Six years ago in late August I arrived in Yunnan – China’s most ethnically and geographically diverse province – to find a massive techno-cultural transition going on. Five years prior, in 2001, John Bryan Starr had published on page 249 of his book Understanding China that “with the important exception of The Sound of Music – which seems to have been seen at least once by every living person in mainland China – most available foreign films are cheap B-grade movies.” By 2005, the B-movies were still there (see above), but the availability had changed massively. As I wrote then of Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, in rather lengthy bit of research I never found a venue in which to publish:

Scattered amongst the hair salons and mini-marts and clothing stores and the Internet cafes are the disc shops. Their outside walls are cluttered with posters advertising the latest films and albums. Inside and outside are tables, stands, and shelves filled with D5s (single-layer DVDs, holding about 4.5 gigabytes of information) in thin cardboard sleeves. The sleeves are in their own plastic sheathes, which can be unsealed at the bottom… At any given store, a selection of more than 1,000 titles would be considered small. At the shop across the street from Yunnan Normal, I estimate there are over 2,500 different titles for sale. Copies of the same title are rubber banded together, and to see what movies are for sale it’s usually necessary to thumb through the baskets or shelves. Though Chinese and foreign movies are kept distinct and there is some organization by genre, for the most part the shelves seem to be sold with the sheer joy of variety overload.

This is a long way from a few years ago in Beijing, where [my instructor] said that vendors were hiding their movies beneath manhole covers.

I counted 20 such shops within a ten-minute’s walking radius, the opening of which had begun to accelerate in earnest around 2003. While I haven’t back to Kunming since 2005 (and China since 2008), I have noted that Kunming (truly a place I love, lest you view all this by its negative connotations) has been in the news for stores that copy the entire retail experiences of Ikea and the Apple Store. What I didn’t realize quite as much then was all this was only one aspect of globalization of media, something I had been living in small-town Iowa, and that was going to grow beyond physical media into clouds and streams, and beyond the largely one-way art of conventional distribution channels to a social-artistic experience.

All this brings me to why I find myself to the flat of an acquaintance (who I got to know through Facebook) in Camden right now, listening to numerous accents of the sidewalk traffic and the echo of train stop announcements, preparing to spend the year studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL). It is the third year the programme is being offered, and (arguably) the programme is the first of its kind in the world.

While the title ‘Digital Anthropology’ may seem a little unconventional, research into “the social and cultural dimensions of information technologies and digital media” (as described on the programme’s web page) is important, something I first realized you could study back during my undergrad semester in Yunnan. Look at the Internet and think how much time you spend on it – and how its changed the way you make new friends, stay in touch with old ones, find information, conduct business, and (special to Facebook) build imaginary farms. Or the role of cell phone and social networks in the organization, suppression and prosecution of the recent riots in the city I’ll be calling home; as I write this, police are sifting through tens of thousands of hours of footage matching the clothing on masked rioters with footage of them unmasked. Look over this post and think about how comprehensible it might have been a decade or two ago.

Communication has changed dramatically – how its changing is important to try to understand and has implications of art, humanitarianism, business, and policy, and trying to understand some aspects of this is going to implicitly affect all our lives and perhaps explicitly be the focus of a good deal of my primary career.

While there are many academic programs worldwide studying these things under different names (“media studies,” etc), I chose Digital Anthropology in part because I liked the idea of rooting a methodological approach in social and cultural aspects, as well as UCL’s egalitarian ethos. The anthropology program here is known for its emphasis on research in material and visual culture – i.e., stuff, and stuff we can see – and their connection to social relationships. Objects. Keepsakes. Knick-knacks. “Of bleeding skulls and the postcolonial uncanny: bones and the presence of Nonosabasut and Demasduit”; “‘The hallmark of a doctor’: the stethoscope and the making of medical identity”; and “Your Trash Is Someone’s Treasure: The Politics of Value at a Michigan Landfill” to name three relatively recent article titles in the affiliated Journal of Material Culture. The program is co-led by Daniel Miller, whose book The Comfort of Things – concerning how residents of a London neighborhood relate to the objects in their homes, and build/maintain relationships with people with them – I found immensely enjoyable and insightful when I read it last year. As long as humans still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea, there will be stuff, and with it stuff to talk about.

This sort of grounding seems the ideal springboard from which go into new and social media, which at times can seem quite intangible and in other ways is very concrete – as in the record kept by an online message board, or the physical object of a pirate DVD. From several of my classmates who I’ve communicated with via Facebook (again, Facebook!), it seems as if at least a few come with some video/film in their backgrounds, something I fit right in with. For professional considerations, the program also enables me to build on my copywriting experience in BVU’s Marketing & Communications Department, as well as the understanding of the business environment and how websites are run, maintained, and monitored.

I’m not finished writing about Storm Lake yet – before I left earlier this month, I outlined a few entries I hope to write on the city, its people, places, and my time there. I’m not finished with piracy yet, either – building on what I looked at in Kunming in some sense may form part of my masters’ thesis. And, of course, I’ll be chronicling my life and studies in London through some of the same technology I’ll be studying. We’re all doing it – the studying and chronicling, I mean. I just found a place that gave it a name I liked.

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