(Mostly) In Defense of Templeton Rye

I generally describe Templeton Rye as the only whiskey I’ve found “drinkable,” a statement of positivity and willful, deflective naivete. I generally don’t go for whiskey, but I like Templeteon, and lest I believe I was suckered in by the marketing, I’m going to stand by that half-flippant flavor assessment amid recent controversies over the beverage’s origins that have now resulted in a lawsuit.

During my own life as a university alumni-publication journalist-marketer, however, I interviewed and wrote a 2011 piece on one of the company’s founders, Keith Kerkhoff, and have subsequently referred to it in at least one blog post that details my RAGBRAI trip through the town. As such, I thought I’d offer some insight, context and thoughts on the whiskey’s origin controversy, Iowan identity and the state’s increasingly prominent distilleries, wineries, and breweries.

In short: the quibbles over many of the controversy’s specifics are somewhat overstated, though it does raise questions of media, agricultural distribution, small places, and identity. Which I guess is my field, so every damn thing raises those questions.

Templeton Rye rose to prominence on the strength not just of its flavor, but on a heckuva marketable story: that present-day Templeton Rye(tm) is based on Prohibition-era ‘white lightning’ so good that Al Capone asked for it by name, and it earned a 300-resident farming village the nickname “Little Chicago.” This is, of course, the sort of story that one could reasonably expect to be heavily garnished, though the idea of some connection between our legally-sold contemporary beverage and an old Templeton-area recipe has been maintained as foundational to the brand’s image.

The company’s website presently, prominently phrases its beverage as being “[b]ased on the original Prohibition era recipe and aged in charred new oak barrels.” Due in part to U.S. laws requiring alcohol to be sold state-level distributors, Templeton Rye’s first batch was sold primarily in Iowa, and Iowa factors heavily into the beverage’s marketing campaign. The booze’s label has heretofore said: “PRODUCED AND BOTTLED BY TEMPLETON RYE SPIRITS, LLC, TEMPLETON, IOWA.”

So Templeton has happily draped itself in Iowaicana, though as for what it has specifically claimed, at least one of the self-described “revelations” that the Des Moines Register and the Daily Beast have been describing have long been knowable (if downplayed by Templeton’s branding), and in fact was mentioned in my puff piece (which gives a good primer on the company’s legend, founding, and early successes): that it is not, in fact, distilled  in Iowa, but a facility in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

During my discussions with Keith, he portrayed Templeton as his physical home, the spiritual (figuratively speaking) home of Templeton Rye, the home of Templeton Rye Spirits LLC, a useful marketing tool, and a place in which some bottling and/or labeling happened. It was clear that the connection was personal and symbolic, though limited practically.

Similarly, if anyone thinks that what they’re buying in stores is close to what Capone himself swilled, that would betray a strong lack of knowledge about history and booze. Scale-produced whiskey is distilled at length (for Templeton, four years) and standardized in ways it wasn’t in the Great Depression’s backyard stills. For analogous info and more background reading, I’d recommend Ambitious Brew by Maureen Ogle (who, incidentally, teaches at Iowa State University) which discusses standardization of output as one of the primary challenges of the American beer industry through the 20th century.

So these concrete things – the Lawrenceburg distillery and the modifications to the recipe – don’t strike me as terribly problematic. However, all of this does rely on an origin point, the idea of some connection – often and presently stated in Templeton’s materials – that the present-day beverage bears some unique, deliberate, specified relationship to a beverage that was being made in Templeton, Iowa, in the 1920s.

And the challenge to that is the accusation “stock MGP recipe,” which – if found to be true – I will find problematic, because it would mean the company crossed the line into outright peddling bullshit rather than leveraging the fuzziness of myth.  As best I can tell at present, however, the phrase originates in the Daily Beast article as an insult hurtled by “one micro-distiller who actually makes his own whiskey.” I will note that something I wanted for my 2011 article (and was not able to get) was more info on how the olde recipe was adapted. At the time, I chalked it up to the process being proprietary.

So basically, Templeton Rye Spirits, LLC, is a company that was founded by a few people from Iowa. One of them was Keith Kerkhoff, of the town of Templeton, which may have had a reputation for good un-aged whiskey in the 1930s. He inherited a whiskey recipe from his grandfather through his father, and as Keith told me the story, that recipe was the reason that Vern Underwood and larger-scale distiller MGP chose to contract with their start-up. These things were not secret. From there, MGP did their thing, and Templeton Rye ran with the original story for the marketing. What ‘their thing’ is will likely be uncovered in greater clarity in the near future.

So, is Templeton Rye ‘Iowan’? is it ‘Prohibition-era’? Is Iowa hip enough now that companies want to be us? Am I still ‘Iowan’ now that I’ll be in England for another four years? Is whiskey actually generally kind of a terrible-tasting beverage and we’re only now just able to admit it?

These are questions that I’d leave to you, dear reader, to ponder.  The outward-facing story of Templeton Rye is a heckuva story – our reaction to the stories behind it speaks to how we juggle the romance of myth with the ambiguities of how the whiskey-sausage gets made. It is also the challenge of marketing, a process which smooths over the rough edges and ambiguities of reality that I find interesting, then flounders as the complexities of life inevitably appear.

In the years since I wrote on Templeton, I’ve seen an expansion of small breweries, wineries, and distilleries in Iowa. I saw a pizza pub in my little hometown of 3,000 people decide it was going to stock 127+ bottles of beers.  I’ve met representatives from Iowa boozeries at various tastings, and they are certainly very aware of (and talkative about) how and where their ingredients are sourced and processed (its often multiple places). If you meet them, ask them about it!

I also toured the Mississippi River Distilling Company, which makes a rye whiskey – Cody Road – distilled in Iowa with German technology. The name itself is taken from their homebase LaClaire’s most famous native: ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, a showman who adapted the myths and practices of his preceding era, the Wild West, and made a career indulging both. The name “Cody Road” is a tribute and permutation, a riff on the past, a tapping into the collective American and global consciousness – and of course, indirect. The whiskey has little to do with William Cody the man or his era, but rather, makes a small claim in the heritage of place. Honesty is clarifying that connection and its claims, while culture and identity are having the latitude to indulge the soft edges of myth.

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Writing tips I have after reading my friends’ anthropology dissertations in draft form

because wordpress is refusing to upload pictures actually relevant to my dissertation

Somehow, this must become words, if it’s what your dissertation is about.

A year and a month ago, I finished my MSc dissertation in Digital Anthropology, on a topic I usually simplify to ‘atheist summer camp and how digital technology is (and isn’t) used there.’ The 16,000 words I submitted at 3:00 AM on the last grueling day may eventually become a right proper ‘publication;’ in the meantime, I shortened it to a blog post for Material World (one of several recent anthropology-themed posts of mine).

The following year (which is to say, recently), a number of my friends went through the same process, and I helped with revisions. I hope my advice was useful to them; for me, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the process of writing and editing, and emerge with what I hope are useful insights on writing composing a large, multi-draft dissertation-type document that involves theory, research, and personal experience.

The Great Draft of the Internet abounds in generic writing and productivity advice, which one could, ironically, waste a lot of time reading. Some of it’s useful, some crappy, some usefully tongue-in-cheek, some implicitly extrapolable from the exemplarily productive, including censorious dictators. As such, the aims of this document are rather modest: writing’s a personal, contextual, and highly contingent thing, and it’s probably best to learn by doing and then reflecting. However, in terms of communicating knowledge of the writing process, de-contextualized useful advice has a tendency to sound both heroic and generic, speaking to ideals while bypassing the messiness of the writing process. Also, generally speaking, it’s difficult to remember what’s commonly taught in high school, to speculate on what may or may not be taught in school internationally, and judge what’s practical and what are the (rational and irrational) bugaboos of English majors and house styles.

Drafts are liminal: never meant to be displayed, and yet, necessary to write (and then, read) to make something deliverable and definite. The finish may be pleasantly beyond one’s original vision, though – if working in good faith – also inevitably compromised by (at best) the impossibility of depicting the whole of reality, and likely: time, inexperience, fatigue, apathy, and the tendency of the present to demand your attention. As David McDougall wrote on ethnographic film, in his essay “The Fate of the Cinema Subject”:

“For the filmmaker, the film is an extract from all footage shot for it, and a reminder of the events that produced it. It reduces the experience onto a very small canvas. For the spectator, by contrast, the film is not small but large: it opens onto a wider landscape.”

Similar arguably goes for all experiences one shapes to share – and the fieldwork-based anthropology dissertation with which I’m familiar (broadly speaking) adds the challenge of considering that experience in light of a theoretical framework. The form bleeds through unevenly in the process of production, at times barely comprehensibly – especially if you’re writing on complex topics. The overall multi-draft production process involves grasping at insight where it’s thick and cogent, while at the same time keeping an eye toward potential directions as yet unknown, as well as the expectations of your readers. One could compare the writing process to participant-observation itself: being in the draft, but not of it, one eye towards the immediacy of experiences (both the writing itself and the remembrances it describes) and the other towards a larger picture, saved insights you must sort through in retrospect. In short, writing is a chronological mess of past, present, future, aspiration and practicality. It’s living inside a non-linear test of Zeno’s Paradox, moving in multiple directions but never quite reaching the end. And then (in more ways than one) you submit.

These are some of the reasons why creative work is challenging, as the dissertation writer is essentially called on to do the work of a seasoned professional, whatever his/her level of comfort or interest in the creative process itself. If you don’t much like writing, the drafting process can make you feel like an introvert delivering a wedding toast that goes on for months. This is why drafts exist: because it is impossible to do all these things at once – and why the process of writing can feel imposing and the end product can turn out pretty satisfying it you work at it.

So get to work. The earlier you start, the better. Slacking off, surfing the web, getting more coffee, re-arranging your pens – we all do it, and (like complaining) it’s an integral part of staying sane. But the actual act of writing is what contributes to the end product, and the foremost contingency of the writing process is actually doing some damn writing, after which, I promise, you will feel better. The more time you spend writing, the more room there is for you to address the content of your ideas. As suggested above, this is a matter of finding both time and energy to write. So when you have the time, be sure it coincides with the energy to be productive. And if you have time but not the focus, consider taking a break lest you spend inordinate time staring at a screen, producing nothing, and calling it “work.” Then get to actual work and don’t beat yourself up, just write.

Don’t consider it “writing” until your words form complete sentences. There was probably more pressure in the days of paper to write in complete sentences, though now the temptation is great to vomit non-linear thinking into a word processor in the hopes of re-arranging it into complete thoughts later. A computer can be a great place to store half-finished thoughts for later, but it’s also a lot of mental work to re-input gibberish back into your mind for processing, much more exhausting than if you did the filtering and processing the first time around. So, where possible, get your thoughts into complete sentences and paragraphs ASAP. No matter how hard you work, you’ll likely spend a certain period of time pre-submission working furtively revising, so it’s best to get as far as you can before you get to that final stretch.

More importantly, the sooner you write, and the sooner you make it understandable to others, the sooner you can seek personalized advice, and move forth into higher-order concerns about the arguments you’re making. That’s what your professors and peers are there for, though they don’t like to receive phone calls past midnight (when you’ll often find yourself working), so you’ll likely find yourself puttering around the Internet for advice (which may have been how you found your way here). Pages like this one are much less useful than personal review, which can supplement these general generic outlines with the specific examples with which you’re wrestling.

Speaking of those arguments you should be making: Don’t just mention things, marshal them towards ends. What’s been written has been written, and it’s only interesting and/or useful contextually to the new thing you’re making. Ideally, you should have something to communicate, and something to say about it. This is, of course, a huge challenge of making readable academic writing: using extant bits of information relevantly, placing them in sentences and paragraphs that convey your discussion goals, their information, and the contextual framework that fits them all together.

For short advice on how to do that: we all get better with practice and good thinking and writing doesn’t develop all at once (see above).  To improve in drafting, I would suggest an imperfect relationship-in-development among sentences, concepts, and sources is generally preferable to lists of the same, with little indication for the reviewer what you intend to do with them. In other words, after your prose is readable, make progress toward fitting the bits together usefully. Don’t let drafts linger too long as clusters of hesitantly-connected information.

To choose what to keep and what to discard, don’t ask yourself “Is this relevant?” Ask: How can I make this relevant?” And if you can’t, delete it. If it’s exceptionally beautiful and you can’t bring yourself to cut it, save it in another document and use it for something else down the line. Have a justification, however spurious, for why a statement / paragraph exists, which you can then use to judge its potential uses. If you’ve worked hard on a section and it still doesn’t feel right, you may be missing the obvious: it’s not working, and you should cut it. Or save it for another piece in another time, when maybe you can make it right.

For example: this blog posts starts with a short narrative that hopefully engages with a bit of drama, establishes my relevant experience, and accounts for the year’s gap between this and my previous post. I included other credentials (my professional writing experience and B.A. in Writing) in earlier drafts, but removed them because I felt they derailed the piece’s focus and failed at establishing credibility: mentioning I wrote a thesis establishes experience, but you’ll likely decide whether I’m full of crap based on the quality of writing in this article, my writing degree and other work experience be damned. I cut and pasted those sentences into another document, and eventually re-worked them into the text here. Had I not been discussing the mechanics of editing, I would have left them out – as I did a direct link to this other Material World article I wrote. All this is not just a narcissistic ploy to discuss myself:  see how vaguely relevant discussion – things mentioned, but not necessarily applied – grinds this piece to a halt? I had another two paragraphs elaborating on an example directly from my dissertation, and I spent an hour developing them, but cut them because they largely duplicated (even more chunkily) info in this paragraph. Anyway, continuing:

Use active voice. You may be attracted to passive voice because it sounds vaguely intellectual – or when you’re an undergrad, because it tends to pad out word counts. However, in the dissertation, you’re much more likely to have the problem of staying under word count. More importantly, passive voice is emblematic of an issue problematic for academic writing: a lack of specificity, the lack of clarity it produces around who performs an action.  One of the good reasons to use passive voice is to evade directly mentioning an action’s performers, which you should do strategically, not by accident.

The easiest way to fix the passive voice / specificity problem is to make sure your sentences have an actor performing an action. People and things do stuff to other people and other things: this advice was constantly drilled into my head throughout high school and college, and yet it’s so easy to slip into writing in passive voice that I did it in this very sentence.  I could correct it by saying teachers drilled this advice into my head.

The composition classic The Elements of Style also mentions this (like I said, probably the most common bit o’ writing-teacher writing advice) in its current 4th edition, section II.2, page 18. Have a read of the Elements of Style, especially sections II and IV, respectively “Elementary Principles of Composition” and “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”; I regard sections I and III as more take-it-or-leave-it-English-teacher preoccupations.

Write the paper you‘re writing, not the paper you didn’t write. As you re-draft, you’ll probably find your paper deviates from what you originally envisioned. As I stated above, this is partially from the thrill of discovery and partially from inevitable compromises. A result is often loose ends you don’t have time to develop – usually beginning with the vestigial remains of story about what you set out to produce in the first place, a personal narrative that has an unfortunate tendency to lodge itself at the beginning of a draft and send the paper down a multi-paragraph dead end. In the case of my dissertation, I began wanting to research evangelical Christian robotics enthusiasts and wound up studying atheists in the woods.  It’s an interestingly ironic reversal, but to explain it in the context of my dissertation would have raise more questions than it answered, encouraging the reader’s mind to wander from the lengthy path ahead. Developing such scaffolding and removing it are part of developing a project, as is laying desolation to large chunks of text you poured your soul into.

Don’t wait until the last minute to write your abstract. Draft it early. And make it understandable to someone who hasn’t spent months writing your dissertation.  I’ve added mine to my website, I stamp it across the ‘publications’ on my CV, so it’s fair to say I see it often – and yet, the further I find myself removed from the process of writing it, the colder I regard it. Compressed language like that may be technically accurate, but it also does the forest-for-trees-missing thing.  Still, I’m reluctant to tinker with it because it is what I submitted: the description of the dissertation I submitted. It’s taken me a year to realize that in some respects that simplification I mentioned at the start (“atheist summer camp and how digital technology is (and isn’t) used there”) isn’t necessarily a bad thing for what it is: a vague intro, regrettably light on the more interesting theoretical concerns, but not a thesis unto itself.

When you write your dissertation, you’ll have been immersed in the subject matter for a good many months, and anyone reading your dissertation probably doesn’t have your knowledge. They may want to know it, however, and will decide whether to read it based, in large part, on your abstract. Your markers, too, may know the theory or general framework behind your subject, but may not have knowledge of your specific topic. So be sure your abstract is technically accurate and inviting to someone who is interested in your topic and wants to know more. By the end of writing, you’ll be more or less insane anyway – and for some time after your submission, you may be pre-occupied with hyper-thoughts of better wordings.

You likely don’t agree with a lot of what I’m saying. This is because you realized I’ve made assumptions that don’t resonate with you. Communication is inherently assumptive, and early drafts especially so. After you’ve had the productive burst of actually getting something on the page, you can go back and recognize those assumptions in your own writing, and in revision, give them more nuance. Practicing writing is also much more useful than listening to advice; I suspect the personal nature of writing makes it easier (after a certain point) to develop by doing than to resonantly communicate useful aspects of the process; I imagine this post will – against my better efforts – resonate more sympathetically with those who have written a dissertation than those who are beginning writing one.  Just as I’ve chosen not to go back, however, and attempt to strip these apparent subjectivities from this blog post (and it is a blog post and not a thesis, where less revision is a luxury, and the temptation to revise tends to lead me to create fewer posts), this is less an exhortation to strive for possibly unattainable-perfection than encouragement to writerly self-awareness: to understand the possibilities out of which to choose a position, and go forth confident and aware. If you’re concerned about anything, just write. 

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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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Part One: Every City that Ever Was

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

March 29 – April 18th

World map in the hull of the Cutty Sark. Damaged by fire in 2007, the last remaining clipper ship re-opened for visitors in Mary 2012.

In January, I left the city for the first time since the week I arrived. When you haven’t seen the countryside for a while, any patch of grass or snowy field, sped by on a train, can remind you of everywhere. Places that I have never been look like places I have not seen for a long time.  I missed parking lots, the horror of great big Wal-Mart parking lots. One of the common criticisms of driving through the Midwestern countryside where I grew up is that it all looks the same, and that it goes on forever – yet there is always there, I’ve found, a reminder through space that the world is very big.

“The city is more beautiful than the country because it is rich in human history,” writes London native Peter Ackryod in chapter 46 of London: The Biography, an 801-page parade of historical fragments that portray London as “every city that ever was and ever will be,” (a quote Ackroyd borrows from Stephen Graham’s London Nights [1925]). Ackroyd claims all sentiments for London – for example, Mary Firth, aka Moll Cutpurse, is not just one of the city’s many celebrated historical criminals, but (like every damn thing) “symbolic of London itself,” her disguised femininity above all “a token of urban identity” (619). London is a “a city perpetually doomed” (p192) by the plague and fires, a place that has “always been characterized by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness” (66), and attempts to map it represent “an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to migrate to it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable.” (104). Ackroyd’s London contains multitudes to the point of parody. To get a sense of the vibe of mythic London, I’d recommend looking through some Hogarth pictures; they’re much more thematically organized, evocative, funnier, and quicker to browse.

“Please tell us about an object in your home which has come from another country.” Interactive exhibition at the Geffrye Museum of the Home.

In well-known cities, there are always marked contrasts between the vibrancy of culture and the physical realities of people living in close proximity, in buildings that last centuries (or pretend like they can), that will break down, change hands, shift from business to tenement and back again. Ackroyd is right about how the city can feel all-encompassing:  the world seems to have been drawn to this place in its totality, beginning with the Romans who built the first permanent settlement in the first century CE.  International and intercultural coexistence is a conspicuous norm in most neighborhoods – like Golders Green, which I visited last week, and its streets of Orthodox-kosher Korean, Japanese and Chinese restaurants. It’s somewhat unnerving to visit Oxford (an hour away by train) and hear a uniform accent across the people you meet in the streets. Yet it would be a mistake to think that just because people have come together to make something new, in a place with a particular history, that their lives in the city are their only lives. That the things in the city are not contained by it is one of London’s great joys. It is partially for this reason that the posts on my blog tend to be weirdly formal and regrettably infrequent; the everyday stuff of pubs and museums and annoyances and fun has largely migrated to Facebook, where it sits with some 600 friends from around the world, mingling with their domestic lives.

Likewise, the cosmopolitan nature of the city disguises how small it really is; that London seems like it could envelope the whole world is a sentiment better struggled against than accepted. To view London as ‘every city’ is to lose the specificity of what it and every other city can be. It’s the danger when you stay anywhere for too long: you can forget there are other places, and the specifics of your own street mask their similarities to other streets. And then, all windswept vistas look alike.

Now in June – on the verge of returning to the American countryside (at least for the summer) for fieldwork –I’m scrambling to become a tourist in what has become my own city. It’s the leaving of London, though, for other cities that prompted this series of posts. Two months ago, I took a three-week trip through Europe with a friend from Iowa. It’s the ‘overseas short-term resident’ trip: go out and see “Europe,” because it’s all ‘right there.’ I left London to begin in Berlin, staying in the same place I did seven years ago: a hostel themed after the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which provided not only continuity with my previous trip (documented in these three posts), but unexpectedly a bookend for the trip itself with the mural on the wall, depicting a whale being called into being and a pot of flowers falling out a window and thinking to itself, “oh no, not again.” The story concludes on the Greek island of Corfu with hundreds of pots being thrown from windows, but we’ll get there soon enough.

London: The heap, as viewed from Acton Street, Early Spring

Destroyed in World War II and rebuilt for the Berlin Airlift, Tegel Airport will join Templehof as defunct sometime this month, leaving Berlin-Schönefeld and the newly-built Berlin-Brandenburg as the only ways into the city by air.

Berlin, 2005: The Palast der Republik under demolition

Leaving a mild winter in London into March in Berlin was a trip to a different archetypal set of aesthetics of urban life, beginning with the rain.  The image of London fog, drizzle and umbrellas hasn’t held for most of my nine months here; even throughout winter, days remained sunny, in part due to a two-year drought. That month, public service announcements finally responded reminding us to conserve water, just in time for a few rainy days to make them look out of place. Now the bus and train station signs read “Rain or Shine…”  Berlin’s weather was closer to that of a London of legend, overcast greys and drizzle, but the streets themselves are entirely Berlin, reflective dynamics of cool materials that the city makes its own, rising above the layers of history that crack open and are exposed.

That same space, 2012

London, by contrast, is – in a literal, physical sense – remarkably flat, and the grime of centuries past is (depending on the neighborhood) swept away or built overtop, “that great pile upon which the city rests” (Ackryod: 111).  Neighborhoods become trendy or posh or fall into collapse, gentrify or become derelict, and the city rises, decays and ultimately builds something else on its own ruins. Berlin embraces the myth of the modern; postwar, the Eastern and Western sides of the city worked to reinvent themselves in visions of alternate futures. London’s more visible aesthetic divides appear, often, to have happened practically. The industrial docklands in the East of the city – where the Olympics will happen – were built into the glass-and-skyscraper business district, while around Bloomsbury (where I’ve spent much of my year), the townhouses of eras passed were rebuilt with whatever resources could be found.  Now, these two-to-three story earth-toned mishmashes are being primped and restored in time for the Olympics, sending a message that the place’s styles have always been, will always be, up to date, despite the general transience of London’s population.

Seven years and there’s more continuity than I expected in Berlin, at least between a few days in May in 2005 and 2012. Lounge act Gayle Tufts still has a show going. The punks at the Alex have migrated to the open field where the Palace of the Republic once was, while around the corner from the Topography of Terror – the exposed torture cells from the Nazi secret police, beneath one of the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall – the Trabi Safari lets you take a drive through the city in East German style. I picked up a few historic sights I hadn’t seen in 2005, but I was more there for the flight, as a launching point, and for nostalgia. When I went to China in 2007, I felt like I was leaving America for a different life, and that the two places marked a divide and I would have to be in either one or the other. With a friend from Iowa (who is living in Italy) in Berlin – a place I had been before with different people – I felt like life was continuous.

Like fields but unlike in inner London, the interiors and exteriors breathe with space. Having coffee in a shop and looking out on the streets near Friedrichstrasse Station and thinking: there are not enough people walking by to achieve the critical mass of the London street, where crossing lights lack authority, and after the first few people step into traffic, the pedestrians claim the intersection. And you cross, with so many people you will never meet again.

See more pictures at Flickr

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In London: A Long-Delayed Update

Not long ago, I posted a rather idyllically indulgent message to Facebook from the Bloomsbury Festival wi-fi:

[Matt] is under a tree, reading “Coming of Age in Second Life” on my laptop at Russell Square in  the midst of the Bloomsbury Festival. It’s a perfect day here weather-wise, the park is full of people, music, crafts, bookstands and art installations – to my right, magnetic poetry-type poems made by visitors on chains of paper that go above my head to the path, strung together thick like a tunnel. Lantern parade/drumline was Friday night. It’s a great London Sunday…

Which was true, more or less. Bloomsbury Festival weekend closed on what was about as close as you could get to a perfect day outside, sunny and low-70s (F) on top of what has already been an unseasonably warm fall, another in a line of what is fast becoming a tradition of relaxing Sundays that have thus far taken me to explore the streets of Whitechapel (see above) and the old hunting grounds that are the forests of Richmond. The Festival felt like a more expansive vision of the grab-the-kids-and-head-to-the-park events that brought together each town I knew growing up, fitting the description of London that seems to resonate most with friends here, “like a thousand overlapping small towns that happen to have millions of people in them.“ I suppose any place you live can feel small – or at least manageable, though not necessarily comprehensible.

The ‘small town’ comparison does bear out (somewhat) historically: much of what we today call London was developed across hundreds of years by aristocratic families who built their estates into residential and business districts. Beginning in 1863, a similar jigsaw development puzzle was enacted beneath London as a handful of companies carved out stretches of railway that would only later be combined into the world’s largest below-ground train system. These two development schemes come together, incidentally, in Cyril M. Harris’ slim but useful volume “What’s in a Name?” which lists the origins of the names of all the Underground’s active tube stops, a catalog of ‘hams’ (from the old English for home, casually indistinguishable from hamm, ‘a water meadow’), towers, hills and family lands – some of which date to the Domesday Book,  William the Conqueror’s commissioned 11the century land/taxation survey and perhaps literature’s greatest discrepancy between interestingness of title of content.

More literally, London has 14 million people and is the EU’s largest city. In a very obvious sense it is a sprawling metropolis, stretching in all directions, disembodied from the countryside to one who flew into Heathrow. Despite being in England, the city is in many respects a cultural no-man’s land –the most recent census (2001) states that over one in four Londoners were born outside the UK. London is a transnational, liminal space, an Everycountry unto itself. University College London’s slogan that it is “London’s Global University” is almost redundant. We’ve all come from around the world for whatever reasons – work, study, following a significant other (and I know people who have done each) – to do our time in this gloriously full place, full of people and energy, to spend evenings in the pubs that spill out onto the sidewalk and the street and to rent rooms in its mold-addled, ridiculously expensive apartments.

Northwest of the center (The capital-C “City” or “City of London”), street-level Bloomsbury was developed by the Dukes of Bedford – the Russell family  – and associated names (Bedford, Russell, Tavistock) label the streets and squares in the area. In the early 20th century, the time of Bertrand Russell (the family’s most famous scion), it was also the home of the “Bloomsbury Group” (whose membership included writer Virginia Woolf and economist John Maynard Keynes). T.S. Elliot had his offices here in a building that is now owned by SOAS; around another corner is the Queen’s Square, where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married and along which is a shop where George III’s wife daily went to get his lunch soup in lead-lined bowls. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – which, in the mid-1800s briefly brought painting back to a visually bright if superficially sunny disposition – was founded here, and around another corner its most prominent member, Dante Rossetti, had an apartment.

The neighborhood forms a north-to-south line of most of the locations where I spend my days – from UCL’s campus that flows into Birkbeck’s into the School of Oriental and African Studies (all members of the 31-institution University of London system) to Russell Square to Senate House Library to the British Museum to (a bit further down) the Strand and the London School of Economics. Most of this information is – of course – available in any guidebook, and to any resident the history part is largely as relevant as one cares to invest in (or romanticize) it. As I’m primarily here for the functional reason of being a formal student in a subject other than ‘London’, investing in that history has to come on my off-time in between reading and generally having other experiences. Which is all to say that some of the more focused posts I could have written may have been lost to time, and I realize now I’ve been over here around two months haven’t let most of you in on just what I’ve been spending my time doing.

This may be, by nature, a bit superficial, somewhat ironic given that I’ve been studying a science of qualitative observation. Technology, too, has changed since my 2005 and 2007 trips to China, and the format of the public blog is not quite designed for the personal, candid pieces I was writing then for a fairly heftily-sized email list.  On the other hand, I’ve been posting shorter bits on Facebook (like the above) and an ever-growing folder of interestingly-phrased street signs.

Moreover, studying anthropology makes one wary of spouting too many broad public pronouncements on ‘place’ after being in an area only a few weeks. But in another sense, it is quite anthropological to wait a bit and draw a general sense from the experience, and I hope to build on it in specifics within the coming weeks.

Continuing, some demystification:  London is awesome, but being a student here also has its own equivalents to the “large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches” that David Foster Wallace talked about to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. Being a student (particularly after you’ve worked full time for a while) feels very liminal to me, much as the possibilities life holds often contrast with lived experience’s tendency to skew toward the mundane. Every night London has more people than seem to be able to fit into its buildings spilling onto the streets as late as I’ve been up, yet the tubes close around midnight, many pubs sooner.  There are more events that you could even hear about – and there are events, everywhere, ever night – but one’s hours are limited and the actual experience is of excitement within boundaries.

While I have passed the anti-war protests that have been outside Westminster Abbey longer than I’ve been in the city, I still haven’t made it to the protests at St. Paul’s and the London Stock Exchange – products of growing economic frustrations the likes of which led last year led to protests over cuts to educational subsidies and a lift on tuition caps will allow schools to charge UK students up to £9,000 a year in 2012. While these rates are still not what EU students pay – and a little more than half what non-EU ‘overseas’ students like myself are charged – they are a dramatic step up from the maximum £3,290 that can be charged for this school year, which are in turn an increase from the £1,000 that was allowed to be charged in 1998; prior to that, higher education was free in England, at least for the English. And for me and my middle-class Americanness, the nationality grants an easier time passing a convoluted visa process, and the class grants access to resources, i.e. the ability to borrow money.

I occasionally go to this room in Senate House library to study, but I should also mention that a few weeks ago my library card up and stopped working and I spent half an hour in queue before getting past the security checkpoint. Metropolitan Police Department took two weeks to get back to me after my camera was stolen, and the matter is still tied up with insurance and going on six weeks. There’s also weekend work (spurred by the Olympics) on the Underground that shuts down vital stations just when you have free time, forgetting your student ID when attempting to check out a book on reserve and having to hike an hour round trip back to your apartment to search for it only to find that it was in your backpack all that time and upon returning to the library discovering that the book you were looking for was not there anyway, and waiting a week to get an appointment with the doctor over the cough you’ve been having only to find it conflicts with a meeting with your academic advisor and it’s too late to reschedule so you’ll just have to do without.

I’m not cataloguing petty crap to complain – these wasted moments are getting fewer, I quite like it here, and often while walking down the street after drag myself out of bed after lying somewhere between waking and sleep for longer than I should (if judged by a business, and not a student, schedule) I realize the novelty of the city hasn’t worn off. I just want to be honest about how time gets spent, and what means allow it.

But as for what I’m actually here to do:

For around 20 hours each week from Monday through Thursday I’m attending official functions – that is, classroom lectures, seminars (led discussion), and invited speaker seminars (an hour’s presentation, followed by a half-hour discussion and often drinks or food) from each of UCL’s four branches of Anthropology: Material & Visual Culture / Digital (of which I am a part, and which share classes for the fall semester before splitting next spring), Biological Anthropology, Social/Cultural, and Medical. The list of this fall’s topics is here.  On Friday mornings I attend another anthropology seminar series at the London School of Economics.

This semester I am ‘taking’ the Core course, general Methods, Documentary Film & the Anthropological Eye, and Anthropology of Games and Simulation for credit, though the advantage of the system is that one can audit as many courses as one can physically attend – thus I also attend seminars on Applied Studies (anthropology in the workplace) and Anthropology and Photography. Until this week I was taking the Documentary course but not for credit, and decided to sign up for it when I thought of a good idea for a final paper. I don’t attend all sessions of the non-credit courses every week, but attend most on most weeks. Students are generally not expected to purchase books, but rather to use the library’s (sometimes limited supply of) copies of nearly everything. Journal articles are distributed electronically via the library, to conform to copyright regulations.

The flipside of this system is that virtually all assessment for courses rests on a final exam or essay, as professors don’t distinguish between (or often keep track of) who is sitting their courses for credit and who isn’t. 50% of my final grade for the programme as a whole will be weighted by dissertation, the other 50% divided among an exam, a practical project, and final essays for four modules that are judged entirely on their 2,000-3,000 word final essays, the topics for which are trickling in just in time for the class-free reading week.  The freedom also contributes to an administrative structure in which course locations sometimes aren’t finalized until weeks after they’ve begun, as some courses turn out to be more popular than were anticipated and require larger venues. This can all seem a bit disorganized to those used to different systems; as a friend who went to Cambridge said, “It’s London….the disorganization is a London thing”.

Seemingly more important than courses, however – and this is, no doubt, also related to the shift from undergraduate to post-graduate – is an emphasis on immersion in academic life and the life of the department, a processes of socializing and socialization. The approach here is very much ‘research-led’ – during the first weeks, professors talked with us about the direction of their own research projects, with the understanding that as we develop our own if there could be some convergence, we ought to talk.

“You will read and drink more than you ever had in your life,” said my friend Angela on what this process of postgrad education may entail, something that fits nicely with both the centrality of the pub to life in England and the existential crisis of the single scholar: the fear of dying alone underlining sentences on Chinese immigrant-run portrait studios in Java.

Anthropology is not my academic background – let alone the British ‘social’ strain, which diverges from the American ‘cultural’ one (an explanation of what this entails from the UK Royal Anthropological Society’s perspective can be found here). If there is an underlying goal for the year, it appears to be learning how to speak the discourse: to understand the arguments, the stakes, the nuances, theory, and what makes a query anthropological.  I chose the program, in part, for these reasons:  I wanted a discipline that I could apply to something more interdisciplinary like ‘media studies,’ rather than continuing this stage of my education in that sort of wilderness. It’s an odd feeling: I know how to take apart a movie piece by piece, I can cite directors’ names and influences and the six degrees of Kevin Bacon – that’s a discourse I know – but I didn’t realize how naturally that sort of thing comes to me in that single context (film) until finding myself adrift in a sea of new names, relationships, and arguments that I need to not just connect, but root in some basis.

On a more subtle level, my search is for what Pierre Bourdieu described in his foundational text Outline of a Theory of Practice as the habitus – the underlying aspects of our world that reinforce for us how to behave that are not explicitly stated. Bourdieu himself described academia in similar terms of reinforcement and power structures, though not particularly flaterringly, in his 1984 book Homo Academicus. Or to phrase it another way, the challenge is in part to understand why we cite Bourdieu instead of, say, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, whose experiments with ape language research (which I wrote about in a story that will be published in BV Today in January 2012) hit a turning point when she realized that young apes (and indeed, young humans) learn language through immersion more than direct reinforcement. Or perhaps more simply, just that time-honored method of participant-observation is at work here. Or just education.

Yet Digital Anthropology is in many ways uncharted ground, and not just because approximately every other ethnography describes Papua New Guinea or the Amazonian Ya̧nomamö tribe. I’m used to thinking of interdisciplinarity in terms of the humanities, yet in some views Digital Anthropology is in a sense ‘interdisciplinary’, not just for how it charts of newly-developing frontiers but coming as it does from a Material/Visual Culture background rooted in archeology.  The anthropological interest in new media – as, for example, explored by Tom Boellsdorf in Coming of Age in Second Life (2008) –  is not so much the speed at which technology has proliferated as the ways in which people have adopted it, how social norms have developed (and are developing) in these new environments, and how this relates to the ways in which people have in the past adopted social norms. Boellsdorf did his research entirely in Second Life, wanting to take the virtual world on its own terms.  He created an avatar and opened up an office, conducting participant-observation entirely within the structure of Second Life.  His book is in part an exploration of methodology in such an environment, and on a more underlying level a plea to take the study of virtual worlds seriously, citing such precedent examples of virtuality and virtual/mediated relationships as the printing press (which enabled, as described by Benedict Anderson, people to imagine themselves as parts of a larger nation state), pen pals, and the telephone.

As I posted from Facebook in Russell Square, the strips of poetry were a forest, growing to eclipse the famous lines on posters that had lined the path since Friday, “let us go then you and I / when the evening is spread out against the sky” sounding sweet and upbeat and recontextualized amidst a parade of drums and lanterns. Numerous texts I’ve read in these months note that creative works on virtuality, the Internet, and technology  tend to portray visions that are either utopic (Star Trek) or dystopic (The Matrix, Blade Runner, The Social Network), with technology cast as either savior or destroyer. That same sort of drift toward extremes, I think, happens in a great deal of popular fiction, and can pervade the memories we call up in our own lives if we wait too long to write about them.

The Bloomsbury Festival ended for me at St. George’s, at a musical performance by the Soundcastle collective composed for the site and designed specifically to exploit the acoustics of the environment – the last church Hawksmoor designed, based on notes from his mentor and fellow major London architect Christopher Wren. The first part led us outside and to the courtyard, surrounded by a string quartet, the bells and the sound of the street; the second half was inside the square temple-like church of Plymouth stone, with woodwinds and obscure percussion out of our view on the balcony, the lights of the street through the windows providing light along with the cell phone game played by the hulking, 6’4”+ teenager who sat next to me. The music was ambient but melodic, the performance – unlike anything I’d heard– was put together as part of a masters’ programme with the Guildhall. What I will report next fall on my own project is as yet undecided, though there are several diverse directions with which I’m working.  What I’m thinking about this fall, and synthesizing, remains under development, with more to describe as I head into December and papers.


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.