Archive for the 'social theory' Category


Life update

Reflecting: On how the lottery of life placed me where I am today. How fortunate I am to have been born into a time and place where my basic needs are easily met and a wealth of opportunity lies before me. I do not have to worry about having clean water to drink, for example, nor must I scrounge for food or firewood every day. But millions of people do, and this site can give you a sense of what living conditions are like in other countries.

Watching: The HBO series Game of Thrones. For the most part, the casting is spot-on, though as a longtime fan of the book series I am already annoyed by some changes that have been made. I understand that when adapting a work of this scope and complexity for the screen, some changes must be made. But some changes just grate on me, especially as relating to character development.* One thing I love, though, is the title sequence. Very nicely done.

Laughing: At this image. And at another visual commentary on Stupid Ned Stark.

Looking up: At the sky and wishing the East Coast didn’t have so much light pollution. To get a really good view of the night sky, I’ll have to content myself with this interactive 360-degree image. The official description (“The Photopic Sky Survey is a 5,000 megapixel photograph of the entire night sky stitched together from 37,440 exposures”) doesn’t quite do it justice. It is pretty amazing. For more information on this project, head directly to the Photopic Sky Survey main page.

Eating: Lots of lettuce and arugula from our garden. The peas have just started to appear (Sylvia sampled the first one straight off the vine today), so i expect we’ll be eating lots of those soon enough.

Reading: Moloka’i, by Alan Brennert. It starts with a seven-year-old girl being sent, alone, to a leper colony in the 1890s. Her parting from her parents and family—knowing that she’d never seen most of them again—is heart-rending. She makes a life for herself on Moloka’i, though, and even finds happiness. In spite of the topic, this isn’t really a “heavy” read, and the narrative is compelling enough that I raced through it pretty quickly.

Thinking: About the Pledge of Allegiance and how, for the most part, it is uncritically taught and learned.[youtube][/youtube]



Why, for example, are Cersei and (especially) Jaime portrayed so sympathetically here? Why, for crying out loud, didn’t the actor playing Tywin shave his head? Tywin’s baldness is an essential part of his character! Grrrr. For info on a few of the (many) other changes HBO has made, look here.



Endings and beginnings

I have decided not to finish my dissertation. I enrolled in the doctoral program in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign immediately after college. I did all my coursework, taught undergraduates about kinship terminology and the postmodern moment, wrote my M.A. thesis, passed my preliminary exams, got a swanky grant, and spent a year in Oregon doing my doctoral fieldwork.

For many reasons, the writing of the dissertation didn’t work out for me. And so, with half of my chapters written, about a year ago I definitively called it quits and haven’t looked back since.

Well, I did have one backward glance over my shoulder: early last month, when I got together with some friends from grad school when they were in town for the 2009 American Anthropological Association meetings. I hadn’t seen most of them in the decade since I moved away from school. It was great to see them, and doing so brought back memories of how fun and exciting it was to live in an intellectually stimulating community (though I have to admit that I don’t miss reading Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak* and discussing structuralism). I miss the camaraderie, but I no longer feel that academia is my home.**

So now that I’ve completely divested myself of graduate student-ness, I need to plot a new course for myself. I have a long history in publishing (my in-house and freelance careers in editing were launched during my second year of grad school) but have not had much luck lately in finding work. (For example, the area where I live is rife with medical and pharmaceutical publishers, but I have no experience in those fields. The few jobs that come up are quickly nabbed by people who’ve been doing that sort of work for a very long time.) Publishing is no longer the place for me, and now I’m struggling to find a new answer to the question “What do I want to do when I grow up?”

I’m exploring a few ideas; maybe I’ll write about them here some time. I’ve never been interested in making New Year’s resolutions and don’t intend to start now. But my mind has already cast 2010 as The Year of Possibilities.***

This is it! Moving onward!

* The Wik entry on her points out “Spivak’s writing has been described by some as opaque.” That’s putting it politely.

** Especially when you consider that job prospects in my area of specialization are nonexistent. This is compounded by increasing academic nomadism and my unwillingness to relocate to any place to find a job.

*** I was going to call it The Year I Figure My Shit Out, but that lacks panache.


More musings on art

My secret pal’s comment to my last post has had me thinking about class and art and Bourdieu and whatnot these past few days.

I’m certainly no expert on Bourdieu, so I’m sure there are all sorts of nuances that I’m missing–especially since he did gobs and gobs of writing about art and aesthetics. He spent a lot of his career trying to understand why rich people and poor people (in France, specifically, but his theories are generally applicable) have different tastes in art, music, literature, etc. One point he made in one of his most famous works, Distinction (and no, I haven’t slogged through the whole book–just bits and pieces), is that because rich people have the economic capital to own works of art, they therefore set themselves up in opposition to those who don’t. So art works to legitimize social differences: because rich people, freed from focusing on survival and the necessities of life, can pursue art that is far removed from the quotidien. A shared interest in this kind of art ( e.g., antiques, “complex” works) helps shape and reinforce an unconscious sense of class unity.

At least, that’s what I remember from grad school–and I’m fairly surprised I remember that much! I like Bourdieu–rather, I should say I like the idea of Bourdieu, since I can’t claim to have read even a small portion of his prodigious output. I like that he was thoughtful and publicly committed in a way that few academics are these days. I was very hopeful when, upon becoming prime minister, Tony Blair announced that Anthony Giddens would be one of his advisors. But then that whole relationship seemed to fall by the wayside, and after a while we saw the UK join the USA’s headlong rush into war (and tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq). Here in the USA we had John Kenneth Galbraith, but he left us last year. At least we still have Noam Chomsky!

Anyway, I don’t think Bourdieu would say that “art isn’t art unless it’s a grand bronze sculpture or oil on canvas.” I think he would say there is a distinction–made by both rich people and poor people–between grand bronze sculptures and finger drawings in the dirt, though.

I don’t pretend to have a clear definition of art–at least, not one that is generally applicable. I think of art mostly in terms of “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” and in terms of whether or not something prods my thinking in new ways. I do think there has to be some intentionality, though. So, for example, when my daughter upends the contents of her breakfast plate onto the floor, I wouldn’t say that the oatmeal-splatter marks in my dining room constitute art per se because she wasn’t intending to be creative or thought-provoking.

Some things fall under the rubric “art” because they were innovative. When Marcel Duchamp stuck a urinal on the wall and called it art, he was the first person to so something like that (and his name became forever linked to an entire movement).

When someone makes a chandelier of gummi bears (yes, that’s right), I find that pretty novel–especially when the artist is striving for some social commentary. YaYa Chou did this first, and I’m happy to call it art. But if this sort of thing became popular and widespread enough to appear in many other incarnations, well, then it seems to me less “artsy” because the initial impact is no longer there.

My brain hurts now. (Social theory tends to do that to me after a while.) I’m going back to knitting. I have a few finished objects and works in progress to chat about, but I’ll save that for another time.