Showing posts with label Ritual. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ritual. Show all posts

A Time for Cliches

May 25, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

You can imagine what the reaction on the right would be if students heckled their graduation speaker with shouts of “Trash” and “Get off the stage.” Actually, you don’t have to imagine. You can find what  the National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and similar conservative havens have already said – that campus liberals are against free speech and that they are afraid to even hear ideas they disagree with.

Will they say those same things about the students at Cal State Fullerton who erupted during a graduation ceremony at the College of Communications. The speaker was Maria Elena Salinas, an anchor at Univision, At one point, she spoke briefly in Spanish “to encourage students interested in going into Spanish-language media and to tell them she has a scholarship for them,” (WaPo) The Fullerton student body is 40% Hispanic.

Tensions worsened as Salinas began offering advice to journalism students to use the tools of media to rebut political figures such as Donald Trump. That’s when folks began yelling things to Salinas such as, “Get off the stage!” and “Trash!” (OC Weekly )

Were these students* against free speech? Were they afraid to hear her ideas about Trump? I doubt it. I can only repeat what I said a year ago at graduation time (here): graduations are not about the exchange of ideas, they are about symbolism, and what the ritual, almost any ritual, symbolizes is group solidarity. Conflict is out place. If a speaker represents policies that are highly divisive, or if the speech becomes explicitly partisan, or if the speaker excludes part of the assembled group (e.g., by speaking a language half the group cannot understand), the temporary unity is ruined. The students who heckled Salinas probably felt that she had a right to her opinions and her language, but this was their graduation ceremony, and she was spoiling the show.

I guess there’s something to be said for tepid speeches with their cliches about hard work and achievement, about the future and seizing opportunity, about following your passion and making a difference and all those other phrases on your Commencement Speech Bingo card.

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* The students who voiced their displeasure must have been a small minority and seated away from the microphone. In the video in the WaPo link, their heckling cannot be heard. If you watch the video excerpt, you can also hear that the Spanish portion of the speech took less than thirty seconds. So possibly the Post is making a bigger deal out of this than is warranted.

We Are the World

December 31, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The ISIS threat to carry out terrorist attacks on New Year’s Eve celebrations shows what a unique holiday this is.

As Durkheim pointed out long ago, the underlying purpose of a ritual is group solidarity.  Rituals mark group boundaries. That’s why participation is so important. To take part in the ritual is to define yourself as a member of the group. To stay away is to declare that you are not a member. “Why do I have to go to Grandma’s for Christmas?” “Because you’re a member of this family.”
   
Because they define the group’s boundaries, rituals draw the line between Us and everyone else. “Us” might be a family, a team, a religion, a nation, or any other group. New Year’s Eve is unique in that the group it defines is the whole world. The year changes for everyone. On television we can see people in Sydney or Singapore, Mumbai or Madrid, celebrating the same festival. We are all taking part in the same ritual, therefore we are all part of the same group – the world. An attack on a New Year celebration, no matter where, is like an attack on a global sense of community.

That sense of community might be phony, or at least fragile and fleeting, but on this one occasion, we get a feeling of it as an ideal. We rarely articulate it specifically; instead, it is the unspoken assumption behind the celebration. As the announcers in the media say, “Tonight, people all over the world are celebrating . . .” This year, the Global Us becomes clearer because of those who have declared themselves to be on the other side of the boundary marked by this ritual.

Happy New Year!

Imagining the Motives of Others

May 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s been much hand-wringing about commencement speakers now that the season has begun.  The critics complain that because student protests – or hints of protest – last year caused speakers to withdraw, the fashion trend in speakers this year is toward bland rather than brazen.  (See this InsideHigherEd article.)

These alarms over university pusillanimity offer us two lessons in sociology: one is the attribution of motives; the other, the nature of rituals.
                           
The hand-wringers, mostly sitting over on the right of the field, seem to know what’s motivating the protesters: fear. 
   

The unwillingness on the part of some students to allow another voice in the discussion is indicative of people who fear their minds will be contaminated just by listening to another viewpoint. 
(Christine Ravold at American Council of Trustees and Alumni.)

I think it’s the extension of the echo chamber from our personal curated Twitter feed or Facebook friends. Now students like seeing just the views they agree with, and it extends past social media onto the commencement stage. . . . “If we treat ideas we don’t agree with as barred from campus, then really what’s left are only the most inoffensive, and by extension most uninteresting, folks.
(Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at FIRE. )


We should always be just a bit suspicious when commentators attribute a motive that the person in question does not acknowledge. In this case, nothing in what the protesters have done suggests that they are afraid. They just don’t want that person to be the voice of their graduation. The leaders of the protests, far from holding their hands over their ears and eyes, have probably scanned every word the speaker has written in their search for evidence of villainy.

Rarely do those attributing the motives bother to confront that evidence or the other arguments that the protesters make. When Condoleezza Rice withdrew as speaker at the Rutgers commencement last year, critics accused the protesters of being against free speech and of being afraid to hear ideas they didn’t like. Never mentioned was the protesters’ argument that Rice had been a leader in policies that were immoral, unjustified, unwise, and disastrous for the country.

Needless to say, when people agree with the protest, they make no such attributions.When President Obama was asked to deliver the commencement speech at Notre Dame in 2009, some students protested, and 65,000 people signed a petition urging that Notre Dame disinvite the president. The right-wing became silent about free speech, and nobody accused the protesters of being afraid of hearing Obama’s words.

Commencement protesters at Rutgers 2014 and Notre Dame 2009

Instead, they correctly saw commencement as a ritual. As Durkheim said more than a century ago, a ritual, whatever its stated purpose (honoring graduates or bringing rain ) has two slightly less obvious functions – enhancing group solidarity and reflecting the group’s shared ideals and values. The protesters are up in arms because their school is honoring someone who contradicts their values – values which should be those of the school as well.  The ritual should be strengthening the connection between the graduates and the school, but for a substantial number of students, perhaps a majority, the school is doing the opposite.

What matters is who the speaker is, not what she says. In most cases, the world little notes nor long remembers the content of the speech. Neither do the graduates. But they do remember who their commencement speaker was – what he stood for and, at least at my graduation, what the students stood in protest against.

For a longer version of commencement-as-ritual, see last year’s graduation post (here).

Durkheim at Commencement

May 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

All these commencement speakers withdrawing because of student protests.  Condoleezza Rice is the best-known, but in his Times op-ed today (here), Timothy Egan mentions several others. The title on Egan’s piece is “The Commencement Bigots,” but Egan’s name-calling doesn’t end at “bigots.”  There’s “fragile,” (overly) “sensitive,” “strong-arm tactics,” “bully,” and “pressure tactics designed to kill opposing views.” That last one is a bit long for playground shouting, but I guess “poopooheads” wouldn’t pass the Times stylesheet, though “kill” is a nice touch.

Egan concludes:
 the lefty thought police at Smith, Haverford and Rutgers share one thing with the knuckle-dragging hard right in Oklahoma: They’re afraid of hearing something that might spoil a view of the world they’ve already figured out.
Other commentators take the “I’m rubber and you’re glue” approach saying that it’s the speakers who are the cowards.  They’re the ones who chickened out. As Egan says, almost in contradiction to his argument about who it is that’s afraid, Rice “canceled after a small knot of protesters pressured the university.” Brave Condi, who stood up to Saddam and other brutal tyrants, unwilling to speak to an audience that might have small knot of protesters. 

Durkheim would have had so much to contribute to this discussion, but alas, he has not been invited to speak.


Commencement is a ritual. It takes place in the realm of the sacred, apart from the everyday, “profane” world of getting and spending, debating and politicking. In the sacred world, we emphasize unity, solidarity, and similarity.  That’s the symbolism of the event.  No individual fashion statements, just everyone wearing the same plain caps and gowns. The stadium or auditorium or whatever is festooned with the school colors, the colors that represent all of us. The message is that we’re all here together, members of the Our Uni* community.  There’s a time and place for provocative, challenging, and divisive speeches, preferably a setting where people can respond and ask questions. Graduation ain’t it. 

We accept this restriction at other rituals. At a funeral, we do not want the eulogist to challenge our positive views of the deceased. At a wedding, surely there are reasons to worry about fault lines in the terrain the couple is standing on, but we don’t want the best man, in his toast, to point out any inconvenient truths. 

Read Egan’s column and note the speakers he selects as some of the best from the recent past – Steve Jobs, David Foster Wallace, Stephen Colbert.  None of these, to judge by the key quotes Egan selects, had a political edge or promoted one side of a controversial issue.  They all offered something that the seniors could admire together, ponder philosophically together, or laugh at together. 

Since rituals are about group solidarity and the symbolism of unity, what the speaker says may be less important than who the speaker is.  The university is not just asking someone to make a good speech, it is bestowing an honor. The question is not whether the person should be heard, it’s whether the university should honor that person on behalf of the entire community.  As Egan says,
The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush — two wars on the credit card, making torture a word associated with the United States — was clearly a debacle. Contemporary assessments were not kind, and history will be brutal.
Rutgers students, if they are interested, can read her book or transcripts of her lectures. But surely we can understand why many graduates – maybe even more than a small knot – might not want their graduation ritual to extend her its benediction.

For our graduation speaker this year, the administration chose author James Patterson. 


I have heard some grumbling, especially among faculty in the English department. Their complaints have nothing to do with what Patterson might say. Instead, they are concerned that the school is honoring a writer whose presence would never grace their syllabi. (On a campus discussion forum, one contributor referred to him only as Paperback Writer.)

Of course, there are worse things for graduation than a divisive speaker or an airport paperback author. Egan mentions “broiling sun.” Cold and rain, our fate last year, can be just as bad.



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* In My Freshman Year, Rebekah Nathan (aka Cathy Small) gives her school the pseudonym Any U, echoing its true identity, NAU (Northern Arizona University). My favorite made-up name for a generic school comes from Montclair prof David Galef: U of All People.

Miner Disagreement

February 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” was published in 1956 (here) and is still widely reprinted. It’s a classic, a golden oldie – the “Stairway to Heaven” of intro anthologies.  It does a wonderful job of making the familiar seem strange – a useful exercise in social science. It forces us to question our taken-for-granted behaviors and ideas.


People and societies have quirky ideas about the body, but we notice that strangeness only in others.  Miner does us a service by making our own taken-for-granted body practices and ideas seem bizarre. He makes us question them and the norms, beliefs, and values that go along with them.  We see that some of those ideas are purely cultural. For example, Miner says of the “shrine” found in each house, “the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret.”  Right. There’s no rational, scientific basis for this segregation.

It’s the use of the term ritual that I have trouble with.  That may be why, in a recent class discussion of ritual, Miner completely slipped my mind, even though the examples students brought up included brushing your teeth and brushing your hair.  In Miner’s essay, these are all rituals.  My students weren’t so sure. 
“But could they be ritualistic?” I asked.  “What’s the difference between brushing your hair ritualistically and doing it non-ritualistically?”

That finally got us to the main idea: If you’re doing it non-ritualistically, what matters is the result – attractive hair (or, if you’re rushing to class, acceptable, hair). But if you’re doing it ritualistically, what matters is that you do it correctly – exactly 50 strokes of the brush through your hair.  Rituals, whether personal or social, are not about rational goal-attainment.

That’s the part that always bothered me about the Nacirema essay.
The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite [which] involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.
If we brush our teeth ritualistically, as Miner suggests, then we stress the process, not the results.  But I think that most Americans (oops, Nacirema) brush their teeth in order to make their mouths “feel fresh and clean” (or whatever the ads say) and to prevent tooth decay. We don’t ask “did I brush correctly?” but “does my mouth still feel and smell like a chicken slept in it?”

The same goes for Miner’s account of dentistry
The holy-mouth-man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client's view, the purpose of these ministrations is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.
Ritual? magic? If the same tooth still hurt or was still sensitive to cold, we’d judge the filling a failure, even though the dentist followed all the right procedures. And we might seek out a different holy-mouth-man. 

In part, Miner’s essay is about language. It shows what you can do by choosing language usually reserved for unfamiliar peoples and practices. But calling a bathroom a “shrine” does not make it one. Nor does calling  pharmaceuticals “magic” mean that their effectiveness is caused by magic rather than rational, scientifically verifiable processes. (Miner uses magic or magical a dozen times in an essay of 2300 words, lightly longer than 4 journal pages.)  True, most of us may not really know how  a medication works, and in this sense our belief in its efficacy can resemble the belief in non-scientific cures. Let’s face it, most people’s understanding of germ theory isn’t much different from a third-grader’s theory of cooties. Miner is making an “as if” observation. We behave as if we had these ideas.  What we call hygiene may share elements with non-scientific and religious body ritual.* We may even act as if we believed in magical causes and effects. But we know that our important beliefs do have a basis in real science, not magic.



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* My cousin Powers, when his kids were young, used to ask them before bed, “Have you finished your ablues?” (short for ablutions).

The Elementary Forms of the US Open Finals

September 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images


Some sociologists went to the US Open final yesterday and posted about it on Facebook.  Here’s what they saw. Notice the size of the court.


(Photo by Jenn Lena)
                                   
I saw the match too. When I got home from work, I turned on CBS.  Here’s what I saw.





On my 40" flat-screen Samsung, I could see the match as though I were in the box seats, nothing between me and the court. I could see the grimace on a player’s face, the sweat stains on his shirt. I sat on an upholstered chair. And it cost me nothing. 

How much was a plastic seat in the top rows of Arthur Ashe Stadium? I don’t know. My grounds pass on Day 3 was $66.  So, $200?  More?   Seats for the finals were $95. I have sat up there near the top. The players are colorful miniatures moving around on the green rectangles. The distant perspective allows – forces – you to see the whole court, so you are aware of placement strategies and patterns of movement you might otherwise not have noticed. But tennis isn’t football; strategy, especially in singles, is fairly obvious and not complicated.*

From way up there, the players are so far away.  It's as though you were looking at your TV through the wrong end of a telescope. You see the game differently, and you hear it differently. A player hits a solid backcourt shot, and for a noticeable half-second or so, you hear silence. Only when the ball is clearing the net do you hear the impact of the stroke. 

Why go out to Flushing Meadow? It’s ridiculous to think about this in the narrow economic framework of money and tennis narrowly defined.  My $0 view of the match was far better than that of my FB friends in their expensive seats high above the court.  Close that micro-economics book and open Durkheim.  Think about the match as ritual. It’s not just about Nadal and Djokovic whacking a fuzzy yellow ball back and forth for a couple of hours. A ritual includes everyone. If you’re there, you are part of that group. You are one with the with the people in the stadium and with the charismatic figures in center court

That’s why, if something is a ritual, being there is so important. Showing up is more than just 80%. It’s everything. If you’re there, you are part of our group. You go to Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Diane’s house not because the food is good. You might get better food and more enjoyment at home with take-out Chinese and a TV.  You go because your presence defines you as a member of the group. Not going is tantamount to saying that you are just not part of this family.

The Final is not just any match. It is the ritual that anoints our king, hence the trophies and pageantry and ritualistic incantations (speeches) after the match.  I would guess that most of the people there yesterday would choose even a so-so final over a close, well-played match on an outside court in Round 3.  Because this match is so important, it generates more mana. And that energy is created by the crowd.  Of course, the crowd’s perception is that it is the players who are creating that special feeling, and it helps if the match on the court is close and well-played. But the same match – every shot exactly the same – played in an early round in a nearly empty stadium would not create that same feeling for the handful of spectators who showed up.

What makes the ticket worth all the money then is not the quality of the play. It is the symbolic meaning of the ritual and the strong feeling you get from being part of that ritual. You were there, with Nadal and Djokovic. That ritual exists in sacred time, linked to other great finals matches.  So maybe you save your ticket stub or your program as your link to that sacred past.

I saw the same match, and I had a better view. But I’m not going to save my cable TV bill.

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* One of my favorite tennis quotes – I don’t remember who, only that he was not a native speaker of English. In a post-match interview, a reporter asked him a question about strategy, with the assumption that he must have had some complicated game-plan. The player didn’t understand.  “I heet the ball to heem; he heet the ball to me.”  That’s a fairly good description of what happens in most singles matches.

A Rain Dance Is Not About Rain

August 11, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Rick Perry is about to toss his hats into the ring. Perry wears two public hats – politician and preacher – though the millinery styles are so similar it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. Last Saturday, Perry was preaching at the Christian rally he organized. This Saturday, he’ll officially announce his candidacy for president at a political rally in South Carolina.

A political campaign, of course, is all about winning, presumably in order to carry out effective policy and solve the nation’s problems. A religious rally is all about . . .

Well, according to Gov. Perry, it’s pretty much about the same thing. Here’s what he said when he launched the idea:
Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.
His supporters echoed this idea of the religious rally as problem-solving
In a video created for the event, a diverse group of residents recite a litany of ailments afflicting the country, including unemployment, injustice, abuse, terrorism, depression and personal fears, such as addiction, preventing parents from fighting and a young girl asking for her daddy to love her. In response, they say they will lift up our cry to Jesus, through worship. (Quoted in Texas Independent, June 6)
Durkheim had a different take on the purpose of a rally. Rallies, whether religious gatherings or pep rallies, are rituals, and regardless of the ostensible objectives, the real goal of a ritual is group solidarity. As Robin Hanson might put it, rain dances are not about rain.

Even the rallyists know this. They judge the pep rally on how much school spirit it generates. If we’re all together in fervent unison, cheering for our side and generating power-plant levels of energy, it’s a great pep rally. If the team goes out the next day and loses 56-3, we don’t judge the pep rally a failure and demand that the cheerleaders be fired. Similarly, if a few months or a year or two, we still have high levels of unemployment, injustice, and abuse; if terrorism is still a potent threat; and if the soil of Texas is still parched and cracked from drought; nobody in Perryland will look back and say, “Gee, maybe that rally thing was a waste of time.”

In fact, back in April, Gov. Perry (or is it Rev. Perry), proclaimed “the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.” It would be irrelevant to point out that last month was the second driest July in the recorded history of the Lone Star State.

Irrelevant because, as Durkheim says, the true object of a rally or any ritual is not the economy or climate or terrorism. It’s the group itself. That’s why the generally accepted measure of a rally’s success is how many people show up. Beyond the body count, we also look to estimates of more subjective qualities – unity and emotional arousal; these, too, are properties of the group, not the outside world.

So a good ritual heightens group solidarity. The downside of that effect is that although the ritual increases solidarity within the group, it can be divisive for the society as a whole. Rituals firm up group boundaries. They emphasize the borderline between the group members and everyone else. The Perry rally was a Christian event. To attend was to acknowledge Jesus. It highlighted the line between Christians and non-Christians. Some people criticized Perry for this sectarianism. They argued that the governor was supposed to represent all the people, not just one religion. As if to confirm this criticism, Perry told the assembled, “ Indeed the only thing that you love more [than the US] is the living Christ.”

To appreciate how extraordinary and potentially divisive this statement is imagine an American Muslim leader telling a rally of co-religionists, “We love Islam even more than we love America.” The people at Fox News would go apoplectic, and thousands of their good Christian viewers would be sending e-mails calling for the execution of these traitors.

The counter-argument is that Perry was acting as a private citizen, not as governor. Maybe so, but that argument might have been more convincing if Perry had taken Durkheim to heart – that is, if he had not promoted his rally as a solution to external economic and political problems.  Or maybe not. A ritual is inherently divisive, though that divisiveness often remains invisible to the participants. Outsiders however, those who are not in the group, can clearly see the line in the sand drawn by the ritual.  Perhaps the governor of Texas should be a uniter, not a divider.

Easter Parade 2011

April 27, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The public rituals of Easter are not about the Passion, just as most public Christmas rituals have little to do with the birth of Jesus. The song “Easter Parade” (written by the same Jew who wrote “White Christmas”) is all about hats and photographers. That was over a half-century ago. Some things don’t change.

(Click on a picture for a larger view.)

That creation on the right was not the only house hat, but that theme was not as common as bunnies or eggs . . .

or, especially, flowers.

The above scene is on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which celebrated its celebrated mass. Outside, things were much more secular (apparently, what happens in St. Patrick’s stays in St. Patrick’s).

Men too wore hats.
And some of the guys dressed up in fancy suits to pose for the photographers.

This woman had her arms tattooed to match her skirt.

I did see one religious message, but even that one added a somewhat post-Biblical context.

New York City does not do much officially for Easter. The police wear their traditional hats.


But in Rockefeller Plaza, you could get this view of 30 Rock.
I hope all readers of the Socioblog had a wonderful Easter.

April Showers / Finishing the Hat

April 19, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Religion, says Durkheim, is all about group solidarity. Religious rituals both reflect and create this sentiment of unity and group feeling. The central ritual symbols, notably the group totem and objects imbued with its spirit, are really representations of the group. These objects are of the group, created by the group, and for the group – the group and not its individual members.

I don’t usually think of my world as particularly totemistic or even very religious – certainly not compared with the spiritually charged world inhabited by the members of the clans Durkheim was thinking about, with their churinga and other sacred objects. But I was at a baby shower yesterday, and the day before that, my wife went to a bridal shower. And both of these featured the Ceremony of the Hat.

This is a rite practiced by females in North America, particularly those of European descent, when they gather to celebrate one of their number who is in a state of transition – from single to married, from childlessness to motherhood. OK, no need to go all Horace Miner Nacerima here; most people know the drill. As the woman being honored unwraps her gifts, someone gathers the discarded ribbons and threads them into a paper plate or in some other way creates a hat, which the honoree then models.


(Click on the image for a larger view. Want to see more examples?
Search for “bridal shower hat” at Google Images.)

No doubt, showers have a very rational, utilitarian component. The bride-to-be or mother-to-be gets a lot of stuff that she’ll need in her new role. The online registry has rationalized the process even further, aligning demand and supply. No surprises. Gift-giving has become predictable, controlled, calculable (“number desired,” “number received”), and efficient.

So what’s up with the hat? I didn’t ask, but if I had, the explanation would surely have been along the lines of “Oh, it’s just silly, it’s just for fun.” But Durkheim, lurking in the far corner of the party room, sees something else. The shower is not just a party for the future bride or mom; it’s a ritual, and as such it is for the group itself. These people, come together from their disparate daily lives, and at least temporarily, they are united into something that transcends any individual.

The hat symbolizes the group – woven together from each person’s ribbon into a single unified and extraordinary object. If you’re at a shower and you have your camera, you might take a picture of the linens or lingerie, the porta-crib or Pat the Bunny. Or you might not. But you always take a picture of the hat.

It’s Your Funeral

November 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Current funeral fashions . . . illustrate the sad truth that, as a society, Americans are no longer sure what to do with our dead.” So says theologian Thomas Long in an All Souls’ Day op-ed in the Times.

He mentions some of these fashions:
coffins emblazoned with sports logos; cremation urns in the shape of bowling pins, golf bags and motorcycle gas tanks; “virtual cemeteries” with video clips and eerie recorded messages from the dead; pendants, bracelets, lamps and table sculptures into which ashes of the deceased can be swirled and molded.
If you don’t believe him, take a look on line, here for example.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

But the source of this diverse emporium of funeral stuff isn’t our uncertainty over what to do with our dead. Instead, it rises at the intersection of two cherished American ideals: capitalism and individualism.

The American tendency to turn ceremonial occasions into commerce is certainly not news. As Robert Klein said of Washington’s Birthday (back when there still was a Washington’s Birthday and not the generic Presidents’ Day), “I’m sure the father of our country would be pleased to know that his birthday is being honored with a mattress sale.”

Even our most solemn moments, funerals, are opportunities to cash in, as was noted long ago by two Brits – Evelyn Waugh in a comic novel (The Loved One, 1948), and Jessica Mitford in a book of serious reporting (The American Way of Death, 1963).

The combination of capitalism with our value on individualism and freedom of choice gives us in funerals what it gives us in everything from automobiles to breakfast cereal: a wide variety of products.

The loser here is tradition. But tradition has never held much power in the US. “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t win many arguments here, especially not when it goes up against rational utilitarianism (“but it would be cheaper and quicker to do it this way”). Tradition is also losing out to self-fulfillment and self-expression. Tradition emphasizes the community – past, present, and future – over the individual. It links the individual with past generations and future generations. In most societies, funerals emphasize the primacy of the group and celebrate the deceased as a member of that group, whatever his particular individual quirks might have been.

The new look in funerals celebrates the individual for precisely those things that made him an individual – his particular interests – even though these have nothing to do with the traditions of the community.
One family asked for a memorial service on the 18th green of their father’s favorite golf course, “because that’s where dad was instead of church on Sunday mornings, so why are we going to church,” Mr. Duffey said. “Line up his buddies, and hit balls.” Another wanted his friends to ride Harleys down his favorite road, scattering his ashes. [From an article in the Times four years ago.]
The same trend has transformed other religious events like confirmations (“Select a confirmation party theme that celebrates the guest of honors hobbies or passions”) and of course, bar mitzvahs.
a beach themed party will put everyone in a tropical mood. Decorate with orange, pink and green lighting and maybe even some tiki torches! String tiny lanterns across the ceiling and use brightly colored flowers in vases for the centerpieces. Everyone will enjoy a limbo contest especially when its played along with some Hawaiian music.
(And I was worried that the previous post’s picture of a Weimaraner wearing a tallith and yarmulke might have been seen as sacrilegious. What was I thinking?)

Sweat Equity and Magical Thinking

December 3, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Remember the Seinfeld episode about wiping the exercise machine at the gym?

ELAINE: Lookit. He knew I was gonna use the machine next, he didn't wipe his sweat off. That's a gesture of intimacy.

GEORGE: I'll tell you what that is - that's a violation of club rules. Now I got him! And you're my witness!

ELAINE: Listen, George! Listen! He knew what he was doing, this was a signal.

GEORGE: A guy leaves a puddle of sweat, that's a signal?

ELAINE: Yeah! It's a social thing.

GEORGE: What if he left you a used Kleenex, what's that, a valentine?

There I was at the gym in Florida on the elliptical machine (the machine that won’t come right out and say what it means), sweating and thinking about sweat. The fitness room at the condo enclave in Sarasota where my mother lives has a spray bottle (disinfectant? soap?) and paper towels, and everyone sprays and wipes the machine when they finish. I guess it’s so you don’t contract what they have, which seems mostly to be old age.

But I think Elaine had it right. Sweat is about social contagion, not medical contagion. It’s part of magical thinking – the idea that a person’s essence, spirit, power, mana, or whatever you want to call it can be transmitted physically by touch and by those things that were once part of the body. Hair is often the medium of choice, whether for voodoo or lockets. And wasn’t someone selling some celebrity’s hair on eBay? But we can also use fingernail parings, clothes, breath, or especially, precious bodily fluids

So sweat can be gross or it can valuable, depending on the source. If it’s just another struggling exerciser, we spray and wipe lest we be touched with their mundane germs. But if it’s someone whose magic we want to capture or someone we want to be connected to, that sweat is just what we need.

I kept pedaling, going nowhere fast, following this train of thought, and watching MTV. In the afternoon, viewing choice at the gym is limited, and I wasn’t up for the stock market channel or the soaps. “My Super Sweet Sixteen” was just coming to a close. A girl at the party was holding up a CD of the rap star who’d been hired for the party. “I got him to wipe some of his sweat on it,” she beamed ecstatically. The sweat transmitted his superstar magic to the CD. By touching the CD, she was now touching him and acquiring some of that magic.

Birthday parties themselves follow this same logic of magical thinking. We make the birthday girl or boy superstar for a day. We invest her or him with this magic power, and then we capture it. How?

After the sweaty CD moment, the camera panned over to the birthday girl leaning over her cake. With one long, sweeping breath, she blew out the sixteen candles. The show ended before the cutting and serving of the cake, but here’s the point: Suppose someone invites you to dine. You finish the appetizer and main course, and then your friend says, “I want you to have this wonderful pastry for dessert. But before I serve it to you, I’m going to breathe heavily all over it at close range.” He proceeds to do just that and then hands you the pastry.

Under most circumstances, we’d resent the offer as unsanitary. But at a birthday party. . . .


UPDATE, Feb. 2013:  In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council has issued guidelines recommending that children not be allowed to blow out the candles.  (Time has the story.)

Durkheim at the Parade

November 22, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will have a new “balloonicle” (described in press-releases as “a balloon and self-powered vehicle”) — the Energizer Bunny.
Durkheim, author of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, would love it. To understand why, look at this excerpt from a British observer, Jonathan Raban, who watched the parade twenty years ago from a window on Central Park West. The parade was . . .
. . the secular, American descendant of the European Catholic Easter procession in which all the icons and saints’ bones are removed from the churches and carried ceremonially around the town. The baseball hero, the gaseous, rubbery Mickey Mouse, the Mayflower pilgrims were the totems and treasure relics of a culture, as the New Orleans jazz and Sousa marches were its solemn music.

Had a serious-minded Martian been standing at the window, he would have learned a good deal by studying the parade’s idyllic version of American history. [guns, refugees, rebels]. . . The i
maginative life of children was honored to a degree unknown on Mars— which was, perhaps, why matters of fact and matters of fiction were so confusingly jumbled up here, with Santa Claus and George Washington and Superman and Abraham Lincoln all stirred into the same pot.

He would be struck by the extraordinarily mythopoeic character of life in this strange country. People made myths and lived by them with an ease and fertility that would have been the envy of any tribe of Pacific islanders. Sometimes there were big myths that took possession of the whole society, sometimes little ones, casually manufactured, then trusted absolutely.
from Jonathan Raban, Hunting Mr. Heartbreak: a Discovery of America, 1998.

In my class, when we read about religion, Durkheim mostly, I have students write a paper about a secular ritual. One goal of the assignment is to get them to see that from a functional perspective, a ritual is a way to generate and distribute the energy for binding the members of a society together, and it doesn’t matter whether the ritual is officially secular or religious. In fact, if you're a complete stranger to the culture, you probably couldn’t tell the difference.

No student has ever chosen the Macy’s parade. I wonder why not. Raban, who is from England, not Mars, senses the religious aura of the parade with its many gods. Had there been a Macy’s in ancient Greece, the parade would no doubt have had balloon representations of Demeter (god of the harvest), Poseidon (god of the sea— or would he have a float?), Aphrodite (god of beauty), Hermes (god of silk scarves), and of course in the US, Hebe (goddess of youth). And all the rest. We’re not Athenians. Instead, we throng the streets for icons like Snoopy and Spiderman, Pikachu, Bullwinkle, and Spongebob, but the idea is the same. They are our totems, our gods.

I imagine Durkheim on Central Park West, watching the children and grown-ups that have come together here to look up to these huge embodiments of our cultural ideals. Durkheim feels a frisson, a shiver of recognition. He sees the newest addition coming along. The Energizer Bunny. What better way to symbolize the idea about the binding power of ritual social energy?

Durkheim smiles.

"I Want to Be a Part of It. . . "

November 9, 2006Posted by Jay Livingston
“Who voted?” I asked in class today. One student. And this was in New Jersey where the race for Senate looked to be close enough that your vote might have made a difference. One. The others were too busy.

I voted. I live in New York, where none of the races was going to be close. I knew my vote didn’t mean a thing. But I voted. I wonder why. Not out of civic duty or a belief that my vote will influence policy or any of those other reasons you learn in school.

Why do I vote, I asked myself. Then I remembered that “why” is the wrong question. Start with the other “reporter’s” questions – who, what, where, when, how. Get good answers to those, and you’ll be much closer to answering why.

What do I do when I vote; where and how do I do it?

I live in New York City. In my precinct, you vote an old building in a drab room with dull lighting and a coffee-stained linoleum floor. Usually, people are waiting in line, most of them people you’ve never seen, but you chat and joke with them. The voting booths and machines are the old kind with a curtain —an old piece of canvas that if you thought about or looked at closely you wouldn’t want to spend too much time touching. Inside the both is the machine. You push the big lever to the right, then you flip down the little levers beside the candidates’ names, then you pull the lever back to the left, and that’s it.

Every time I do it, I think – and sometimes I make this comment to the person next to me in line– that these are probably the same machines people voted on to elect LaGuardia mayor in 1934.

As I was thinking about this now, I realized that I felt good about this whole scene. I liked it. I liked the dirty floors, I liked standing there with these strangers. I liked it because even though we were strangers, even though we might be voting for different people (not really all that likely in my precinct), we were all there together as New Yorkers. I liked thinking that I was connected with New Yorkers and New York elections going back to Fiorello (who, by the way, was dead long before I ever set foot in the city). It’s the sense of being part of something that I want to be part of.

I was talking about this with a friend, and he had the same reaction. He said that when he votes, it always takes him back to the first time he voted. It was the Oregon Democratic primary in 1968. He voted for Bobby Kennedy against Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy didn’t win in Oregon, McCarthy did. But a couple of weeks later, Kennedy went to California, and on the night that he won that primary, he was assassinated. My friend’s point is that his vote then connected him with an event of historical importance. And now when he votes, he still feels he’s connecting to history.

I think that’s why I vote and why my students don’t. Older people feel more of a connection to history. I know I feel that connection much more now than when I was in my twenties.

But the larger point is that voting is not a rational act, or at least not completely and not always. It’s not a logical means towards some specific goal (like putting the people you like in office). It’s more about how you feel. If you don’t feel connected to the dominant institutions and the history of the country, come election day there will be something else
you feel emotionally closer to, and you’ll probably be “too busy” to vote.

Halloween

October 30, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
They were lined up down the street to get into Ricky’s this afternoon, all the last-minute costume buyers. Costumes are bought nowadays. Almost nobody has a homemade costume, even kids. In more and more areas of our lives, we are now consumers where we used to be producers. Fewer meals cooked at home, more eaten in restaurants or bought in a store and microwaved. Nobody has the time, buying is so much more convenient, and besides, the people who specialize in making these things make them better than we can. My neighborhood grocery store sells pumpkins already painted with faces. You don’t even have to carve your own.

The odd thing is that even though the costumes are better, they’re not as much fun. I’d rather open my door and see kids in costumes their parents patched together from odd clothes and stuff they had lying around the house. A professional ninja or princess costume doesn’t just substitute cash for creativity, it depersonalizes; anybody with the $34.99 can have the same costume (made in China). And many do. Stores have sold out of the popular costumes.

I like to think of holiday celebrations as islands of community, where things are personal, created and controlled by the group of people involved. But Halloween (and perhaps other holidays) is becoming standardized, controlled by the costume industry. It had become McDonaldized.
So it’s not just the witches and vampires that come out at Halloween; you can also see social trends and themes, like McDonaldization. Parental protectiveness is another. Back in the day (my day at least), kids went out trick-or-treating, and parents stayed home. Now, trick-or-treaters making their rounds have parents following along lest some stranger kidnap their child. And at the end of the night parents inspect the kids’ haul for suspicious looking treats. We’ve all heard the stories about razor blades in apples, LSD on decals, poison in candy.

Twenty years ago, sociologist Joel Best investigated all the reported incidents of “Halloween sadism” that he could find in the press, and he concluded that Halloween sadism is best seen as an urban legend. He’s updated his research and found nothing to change his original view. Yet parents still go out of their way to guard against unknown, sinister evildoers who would harm their kids. No doubt, many of these are the same parents who buy their kids a skateboard or put a swimming pool in the back yard.