Being a collection of musings upon sundry themes

Mortuary Customs of the Cyborgs

In losing some extended family members and a friend from high school in the past few months, I’ve noticed what seems to be a new mortuary custom (new, at least, to me).  Grant me a few moments, dear readers, to think through this observation; doing so is probably part of the grieving process.

One of the traditional practices in the West has been to visit the grave of the deceased to talk with them, expressing loss and perhaps asking advice.  Visitations as a funeral home the night before a burial have served a similar purpose.

What I’ve seen is some of that being translated into Internet practice.  I first noticed it when the son of a deceased family member posted a message to his father’s Facebook wall, speaking to the deceased.  When my high school friend recently died, pages and pages of comments appeared on his wall, addressed to him.

The first thing this made me think of was the spontaneous memorialization you see at the site of a car crash, but after watching a video of Amber Case talking about the second self on the Internet and cyborg anthropology, I started thinking about these practices a little differently.  In a very real sense, we have transferred/extended part of our selves onto the Internet.  When someone dies, that part of them remains in the form of e-mails, facebook pages, blogs, etc.  I think that interacting with the fragment of the deceased that is on their facebook page is in many ways easier than visiting the grave or casket.  When you post on someone’s wall, you are interacting with them in the same way you did when they were alive. At the grave you are talking to a tombstone, at the casket you are made very aware that the body before you is not the deceased.  But when I tell my friend that I’m sorry I didn’t get to see him the last time I was in time, he is just offline, and I talk to friends that are offline all the time.

I’m not sure what the full implications of this practice are.  It seems that the incorporeality of Internet presence and communication makes it a natural vehicle to speak to those who are no longer with us in the flesh, and reinforces the sense of both their continued presence and that of being surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.”

What do you think? Have you noticed anything similar out there on the webs?

10:05 am, by numenetics


A Few Thoughts On Generalities and Particularities

One of the primary tensions we encounter in our work as folklorists is that between the particular and the general. We tend to value thick description, detailed understandings of cultural and performative contexts, and shudder when asked overgeneralized questions like, “What do snakes mean in mythology?” On the other hand, we do seek to use the particulars of specific bits of folklore to understand broad trends in human existence. Perhaps as a reaction against our heritage of unanalyzed miscellanies, folklorists feel a drive to explain, to demonstrate the universal value of our obsession with the minute details of context. This creates a delicate balancing act for the folklorist: veer too far to one side, and we become pedantic antiquarians curating esoteric collections of oddities; swerve to the other and we spend our time crafting a series of Procrustean beds that ignore human diversity.

When handled properly, however, this tension can aid rather than hinder understanding. When tale types and genres provide a backdrop against which we view particular tales and performances, the result can provide both a clearer view of the distinctive features of the particular and a clarification of the trends of the general.

That’s the introduction to a paper I just wrote, and sums up some of the things I’ve been thinking about this semester.  The general and the particular is really just another way of saying the One and the Many, of circling back to “Plato vs. Aristotle”, really.  I’m not sure I think giving one primacy over the other really does us any practical good for understanding reality.  Instead, we tack back and forth between the two in order to make progress.

1:54 pm, by numenetics


Some Thoughts from Gibran

My friends and my roadfellows, pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.

Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats a bread it does not harvest, and drinks a wine that flows not from its own winepress.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero, and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream, yet submits in its awakening.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins, and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between the sword and the block.

Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking.

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.

Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years and whose strong men are yet in the cradle.

Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.

-Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of the Prophet, 1933.

This quotation has been popping back into my head repeatedly after reading it a few days ago.  It’s fairly clear that Gibran had America in mind with this passage, as it is Almustafa’s response to a disciples question about Orphalese, his adopted nation just as America was Gibran’s.  It is interesting to me that many of the things Gibran identifies in 1933 are the same things we often talk about now as problems newer than that.  It is also somewhat refreshing to hear someone speaking with an undisguised mysticism/romanticism, while I feel that many of the people saying similar things today hurt their case by hiding their romanticism behind a veil of rationalism.  I’m not sure whether I feel all these things are actually pitiable, or to what extent they apply to my nation, but it has definitely been sticking with me and many of them seem to hit the nail on the head.

5:00 pm, by numenetics


Role-Playing Games as Tourism

In many ways role-playing games can be described as a form of tourism. Players travel to times and places as diverse as 1920s New England to the medieval world of Greyhawk. The journeys taken are conceptual and imaginary rather than physical and geographic, a difference which helps to illuminate the constructed nature of tourism and provide a ‘natural laboratory’ for the folklorist interested in perceptions of authenticity. Further, players visit these places equipped with commercially produced guidebooks that provide excellent artifacts of commodified culture.

A booklet released in 2003 by Dungeons & Dragons producer Wizards of the Coast provides a particularly striking example of this trend. The booklet, Across Eberron, “outlined the theme and mood of this exciting new setting” and “was written from a traveler’s perspective. It describes the various sights and people met during a traveler’s journey through the land” (Wizards, 2003). The text of the book takes the form of a travelogue written by a fictional character in the setting. In choosing this format the writers made explicit the implicit centrality of tourism to role-playing games.

If the places visited in role-playing game tourism are fictional, what is to be made of the issues of authenticity in this practice?  There are two aspects to be considered: in one aspect, which could be called diegetic authenticity, players seek authentic experiences of the world of Eberron as presented in the published materials; in the other, which I call mimetic authenticity, both authors and players seek to describe the cultures and places of Eberron with some degree of authenticity to the Earth cultures on which Eberron is based.  The brevity of this analysis only allows me to consider the former sort of authenticity, although the latter deserves at least as much attention.

Diegetic authenticity consists of the experience that players are interacting with the “canonical” version of the fictional world.  This canon is established through commercially published books such as Eberron Campaign Setting and Player’s Guide to Eberron, which describe the world as a whole, and Sharn: City of Towers and Magic of Eberron, which detail specific segments of the world.    By purchasing these books players gain access to information about Eberron as it “really” exists.  They utilize this information both to reassure themselves that the Eberron they visit is authentic and to establish cultural capital through sharing their technical knowledge with other players.  The books also provide an ever-expanding list of people and places for players to visit, thus enhancing the repertoire of their gaming stories.  A player, for example, might boast that their character has visited the Mournland and had an audience with the Lord of Blades.  

The audience of this performance would judge its authenticity based on its adherence to the source material (e.g., Did the character’s party have to fight their way through the Dead-Grey Mist surrounding the Mournland? Was the Lord of Blades portrayed as accurately powerful?). As in all tourism, no gaming experience can ever be truly diegetically authentic; gaming performance are largely improvised, which means that not every detail can be fact-checked against the canon.  Of course the canon itself cannot be completely authentic, because now matter how many books are published, the vast majority of life in Eberron exists outside of canonical description.

It may seem disingenuous to describe the texts that created a culture as inauthentic fakeloric imitation of that culture, but perhaps that paradox provides insight into the nature of the relationship between fakelore and folklore.  The African Bush or Amazonian jungle are only slightly less constructed concepts than the Mournland, after all, and the hypothetically authentic core is no more accessible.  In the end, the biggest difference between the two types of tourism is that no one can get to Eberron without consciously participating in its construction.

Further Reading

Across Eberron Booklet

The Sage Handbook of Tourism Studies (PDF)

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4:52 pm, by numenetics


Folklore, 1890

A word of introduction: this is a short essay for one of my folklore classes.  The assignment was to read four issues of the Journal of American Folklore written before 1930 and write on what assumptions we find about the nature of “folk” and folklore.  There are a lot of problems in those materials, but I decided to try and take a stab at confronting my own “chronological snobbery,” as C.S. Lewis put it.  Here’s the result:

It is all too easy for a modern student of folklore to look back on work done 120 years ago and offer the standard critiques from the “lofty” vantage point of the twenty-first century.  More difficult, but perhaps more beneficial, is the task of allowing the vantage point of 1890 offer insight to the modern student.  Rather than run down a standard list of criticisms about armchairs, evolution, and ethnocentrism, in this essay I attempt to draw benefit from the assumptions of the folklorists of 1890. 

One of the most striking things about the articles of this year is the extent to which they merely record bits of folklore with little or no analysis.  On the one hand, this strikes the modern reader as a lack of concern for context.  Often, a story is presented with no introduction as to its origin or the manner in which it was collected.  While it is true that later folklorists would emphasize the importance of context and meaning much more than those of 1890, this “lack” of analysis is repeatedly described as a conscious methodological decision in the journal.

The first issue of the year contains an article by Newell entitled “Additional Collection Necessary to Correct Theory in Folk-lore and Mythology.” Newell argues “that the material at the disposal of the investigator is not yet adequate to convert hypotheses into accepted generalizations, and that, unless greater activity is shown in using the opportunity which still remains open, many problems of  mythology and psychology are destined to continue unsolved” (8:3 p. 23).  The data available to the modern “investigator” is perhaps more vast than Newell could have imagined possible, a fact that may explain our eagerness to explain every piece of data that we come across.   

But these issues serve as reminders that a folklorist should be at least concerned with knowledge of folklore as knowledge about folklore.  The wealth of data available through sources like eHRAF has made that “raw” data seem less valuable That difference in attitude towards the material of folklore almost certainly shapes our understanding of folklore as a whole.  While we might say that the early folklorist fetishized the material, I think they might say that we only truly value our own thoughts about the material, and actually cared little for the actual folktale.  

The final JAF issue of 1890 carried a review of the newly published The Golden Bough which illustrates the approach to the relationship between theory and data current at the time.  The author offers a number of criticisms of Frazer’s work which should humble modern readers by showing that most of our enlightened views on the work were already offered within months of its release.  More interesting than the criticisms, however, are two statements which run contrary to our modern way of thinking: “It is evident that such a work is not be judged by the certainty of the result thus barely stated,” and “the hypothesis is not the main point of Mr. Frazer’s undertaking.”  From our theory-driven perspective, these statements are almost nonsensical.  Why would one reject Frazer’s thesis but embrace the work as a whole?  The answer, I think, lies in the value placed (1) on the material itself, which Frazer compiled so thoroughly; and (2) on the importance of form and readability.  By focusing on an elegant presentation of valuable data Frazer was able to compose a work that continues to be important long after his theories have been rejected.

7:02 pm, by numenetics


Technology and the Reconsolidation of Identity, Part 2

So, all strange narratives aside, Facebook and related networks are doing something very interesting socially that I haven’t seen anyone discuss in so many words: they are in part reconsolidating social identities that have been fracturing at least since the introduction of transistor radio.

Usually you hear this discussed as a half-joking complaint about a friend request from a parent or grandparent.  What made me start thinking about it was my friend’s creation of a separate “professional” identity for Facebook, complete with middle initial.

Creating a separate identity is definitely one strategy, but my intuition is that it represents bailing out a sinking ship, as does (to a lesser extent) LinkedIn.  There are growing concerns about potential employers and actual relatives finding all the naughty things you’ve said, and trying hermetically seal off those naughty bits is not a long-term solution on a societal level.

Here’s what I think will happen.  As people start to realize that, just like picking your nose in the car, people see what you do on Facebook, it will begin to tone down.  Less open complaining about how terrible your boss/teacher/aunt is, less drunken photos.  These will by no means disappear, however, and when 90% of the people have something that is at least a little bit naughty in their web identity, self-censorship and other-censureship will meet in the middle.

Ultimately, I think that’s a net gain.  On the one hand, having my grandma on my friends list reminds me of the importance of managing my public persona.  On the other hand, I will talk about all kinds of things on Facebook (or wherever) that wouldn’t jump to the tip of my tongue sitting in my grandma’s parlor sipping tea.*  So, hopefully, we all learn to behave ourselves while simultaneously getting a better sense of who these people all around us actually are.

*Grandma, I know that you don’t have a parlor, and I don’t think we’ve ever had tea together.  This is a hypothetical, non-Antarctica-visiting grandma.

10:07 am, by numenetics


Technology and the Reconsolidation of Identity, Part 1

Let me tell you a lie about identity and community.  It is a lie because it is a history, and for that same reason it will be true.

Once upon a time, everyone knew everything about everyone.  They lived in a small town and if Timmy was hanging out with Bruno, that vulgar boy with the drunken father, Timmy’s mom learned about it through the clothesline telegraph pretty quickly.  Everyone had to watch what they said, because they didn’t want to get chewed out by Auntie McSpinsterpants.

Then Alexander Graham Bell landed his steam powered airship outside the town and forcibly installed telephones in everyone’s houses.  At first, everyone shared party lines, which really helped the clothesline telegraph industry because no one had to go outside to maintain it.

Many, many years later, the party line party ended and Timmy VII got his own phone line.  Now he could call Susy VII and have all kinds of licentious conversations.  Afterwards he called Bruno VII and they made unconscionable jokes about it.  Timmy and Susy VI knew nothing of this, and Bruno VII was very well behaved whenever he came over.

Then Bill Gates, garbed in the traditional black of the ninjitsu master, stealthily crouched outside Timmy X’s window.  Drawing on his ki focus, Gates-san dissolved his body into an oily smoke and flowed into Timmy X’s room through the barest of cracks in the windowsill.  When Timmy X awoke the next morning he had a state of the art computer and 56k modem.

Now Timmy X, in the superhero tradition, could create an alter ego.  By day he was Timmy X, mild-mannered exemplar of boyhood.  By night, he was hOtGuYbRuNo2323, Don Juan of the chatrooms, a/s/l’ing and exchanging IM’s that would make Auntie McSpinsterpants weep tears of blood.

Next: High Commander Mark Von Zuckerberg destroys hOtGuYbRuNo2323 with a techno-blitzkrieg.

11:42 am, by numenetics


The Lurking Thing

There are some things that you know you’re going to love, and people keep telling you about them, but you just don’t get around to it.  It’s usually something like a book, a movie, or an album, but it could even be something like a webcomic.  The first time you hear it mentioned, you politely nod and say, “Yeah, I’ll have to check that out sometime.”  Then you forget about it, until it comes up again.  And again.  At this point you start to think that maybe this thing is worth checking out, and there’s a narrow window in which you can bump it to the top of your list and enjoy.  More often for me, I miss that window.  I hear about it a few more times and then, suddenly and curiously, I can’t just bump it into the list.  Now I can’t just check it out, I need to clear a proper space and time for this Thing [which has now reached capitalized proportions].  Past this, threshold, you start to interrupt people who tell you about the Thing-“Yeah, I know.  I really need to watch that.”

I used to feel like this represented some perverse form of procrastination on my part, but I’m starting to think it’s good.  Eventually, the stars do align and I know that the time has come for me to approach the Thing.  Usually, it’s like sitting down with an old friend you’ve never met.  Sometimes you find out you don’t actually like the Thing, but because the stars have aligned your rejection now carries the force of a papal edict.

Anyway, reading Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind was a Thing for me, and the stars have aligned.  I’m loving it, and will be posting about why pretty soon.  The moral of this story, though, is to keep your inventory of Things well stocked and not to rush the stars.

6:00 pm, by numenetics