I still remember the first time I ever went into a Korean restaurant. A friend and I had been playing pool down at the Cue Club in Las Vegas for a couple of hours. It was pretty late as we left, but both of us were quite hungry. Seeing Korean restaurants all over the plaza, as we had for years, we decided that it was was well past time to give one a try.
I don’t remember what either of us ordered, but I do remember that we were both pretty unsure of what we’d be getting. Familiar choices were available, but we both decided to avoid going for the Chinese items we’d both had before. We wanted to try Korean food, so that meant launching into unknown parts of the menu. Anyway, we both found something to order, and in time the food came around.
Two main dishes and a whole host of side dishes, plus some rice in a covered bowl and a bowl of soup for each of us.
We could tell that some of the side dishes were Kimchi, but some of them were a complete mystery. We weren’t entirely sure if we should add the rice to the main dishes or visa versa, eat them separate, etc. Were the side dishes really side dishes, or were we supposed to mix them in with the rest? We just didn’t know the drill. We thought about just plowing ahead, but it occurred to us that doing it wrong might mean missing out on the full experience, so we decided to ask.
The waitress didn’t speak English that well, and the question was at least a little odd, but we stumbled through it, and she seemed to understand us. Was there some trick to eating this? How were we supposed to go about this?
Then she called over a second waitress and spoke to her in Korean.
The second waitress thought carefully and then began to explain something to the first, also in Korean. She went on for a while. …quite awhile! She was actually a little bit animated, and her answer must have taken at least five minutes.
Mike and I looked at each other. Clearly, we were right. There was something we should know, but what was it?
Our first waitress, asked a follow-up question.
The second answered her.
They began going back and forth, still in Korean. The full conversation must have taken at least ten minutes, tough it actually seemed much longer. We had no idea what they were saying to each other.
Mike and I prepared for the long and complex lesson we would surely get when this conversation was over.
Finally, the first waitress turned to us and we both straightened up, ready for the coming lecture.
“It’s just food. eat it!”
Needless to say; when a certain Bill Murray film came out, I laughed my ass off at a certain scene.
Someone I know and love likes to say that Game of Thrones is all fake. It’s fantasy, so there is nothing realistic about it. This same individual (whom I know and love) eats up reality TV like it was candy. I think he knows as well as I do that those shows are often contrived, but that doesn’t stop him from getting really into the moment that alligator is on the hook and the second guy in the boat can’t seem to find his shot. I know as well as he does that Westeros ain’t real, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying about the fate of Jon Snow. Each mode of storytelling works for one of us and not the other.
But what does realism have to do with it? Or anything else for that matter?
It’s easier to see the connection for reality TV, not because it’s more real in an objective sense, but because the theme is more central to the genre. Reality television purports to be showing us something about how people in some part of this world really do live. That’s a claim that goes a bit beyond the story-line itself and reaches into the mess of life we sometimes call the real world. That claim constitutes a significant portion of the genre’s appeal. It’s a bit like porn, actually. The dialogue may be utter crap, but somehow the sense that you are seeing something real makes it a little more interesting. At least I think that’s the point, or at least part of it. For myself, I just can’t get into it. Knowing just how much manipulation goes into the stories told in reality television, constitutes a bit of deal-breaker for me. Perhaps I would enjoy it more if I could suspend disbelief and just enjoy the stories, but how does that suspension of disbelief work when a sense of veracity is central to the genre?
…also, there is the expository crutch!
Reality television leans very heavily on the use of exposition. Far too often, for me anyway, they break away from the action to have one of the characters explain events to the audience in their own words. Without these moments we would be missing a lot of the plot-line. Reality television uses these moments to fill in the gaps. It also uses them to tell us what’s at stake in the action, often playing up the drama well beyond any significance we could draw from the events ourselves. …if we don’t get this fish trap to work we’ll starve! We need to fix the oil leak in our car or we’ll freeze to death on this mountain top. That chef needs to change his recipe or the whole business will go under! …you get the idea. They’ll repeat these narratives a few times each episode, just to make sure you get caught up in the point. Maybe, I’m a hard sell, but most of the time I just don’t believe them. More importantly, I find the whole convention damned tedious. When did so much exposition become good writing? I’m guessing that moment in television history came during the early episodes of MTV’s Real World and that first season of Survivor.
Remember Survivor? Remember the hype leading up to the first episode? This was supposed to be about people surviving on their own under primitive conditions. Only they couldn’t! Those guys really couldn’t do much to feed themselves and contribute to their own survival. But they did get just enough food and water from the show producers to survive so long as they didn’t waste their energy trying to survive on their own. So they mostly sat around and bickered with each other. Somewhere in there, I imagine, the production team must have had a collective panic attack. …My God, the whole story just ain’t happening! What do we do? The answer turned out to be high school soap opera, and thus the master script was born for just about every reality television program made ever since.
That’s how I imagine it anyway. It may not be real, but if you had me and five of my friends telling you the story of this blog post, I’ll bet it would pass muster for reality TV.
“…this really is a must write blog post for Dan. He’s at his breaking point.”
“I knew, I had to do post something today. This post was like a dark cloud hanging over my head.”
“If Dan doesn’t finish this post today, I’m pretty sure he’ll be eaten by black bears.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is. Nobody reads blogs anymore anyway.”
I’m voting that last fucker of the island!
But let’s come back to the Game of Thrones! I get the concern. It’s fantasy. There are dragons. Magic works (except when it doesn’t), and well, hell, did I mention there are dragons? Clearly, some things about Game of Thrones are not real at all. Still, I think the show has two (maybe three) realisms lacking in many more ‘realistic’ genres.
First and foremost, it’s all the death, the gruesome terrible deaths, the ones that happen to central characters that we all know and love. Love it or hate it, George R.R. Martin’s penchant for killing off key protagonists has long since become the defining feature of the show. For myself, I love it, but there is a certain dwarf that better be in good health at the end of this coming season or I’ll, I’ll, …I don’t know what I’ll do.
Take that Martin!
People ask Martin about this all the time. I’m particularly fond of the answer he once gave The Independent:
“A writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die,” he told Galaxy’s Edge Magazine. “Particularly if you’re writing about war, which is certainly a central subject in Game of Thrones.”
He continued: “We’ve all read this story a million times when a bunch of heroes set out on an adventure and it’s the hero and his best friend and his girlfriend and they go through amazing hair-raising adventures and none of them die. The only ones who die are extras.
“That’s such a cheat. It doesn’t happen that way. They go into battle and their best friend dies or they get horribly wounded. They lose their leg or death comes at them unexpectedly.”
The author goes on to explain, slightly morbidly, that we’re all going to die at some stage as mortality is inevitable. “Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time.
“You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books.”
I take that to be a kind of realism. It’s not about authentic costumes or weaponry, or the details of some known historical event. It’s about the human cost of warfare. Martin is known to have patterned his fiction after some real historical conflicts (most notably the War of the Roses), but of course his work remains fiction. Hell, it remains fantasy-fiction. So, we have no baseline from which to compare his description of events to a known fact, at least not any he is obligated to render with accuracy. Still, Martin’s willingness to kill off the characters we care about tells us something about war that many more ‘realistic’ stories keep leaving out.
I would add that it isn’t just Martin’s willingness to kill important characters that sets his stories off from others. It’s his willingness to do it unexpectedly, suddenly, and often without any hint of heroics in the moment of death. Time and again, Game of Thrones invites us to identify with a character, to root for them, only to kill them in the end.
…only to leave us watching as the struggle goes on without those whose story arc had once defined the whole meaning of the show for us.
That is a kind of realism, one largely absent in a good deal of historical fiction.
None of this is exactly Italian neorealism. But each of these genres effects a kind of realism amidst a story-line saturated with fiction. Where one purports to show us something akin to lives of people in odd walks of life, another aims to show us how human beings struggle to deal with terrible events. For either to work, something in story-line must resonate for the viewer (or reader). Each in its own way speaks to a sense of reality, though each also weds that sense of reality to a fabricated universe of its own.
Historical accuracy might be thought to present another type of realism, but of course historical films (and even documentaries) are saturated with their own contrivances. The blog, An Historian Goes to the Movies presented a very thoughtful discussion of the subject here, here, and here (and really throughout his entire website). In one of the most interesting passages in this series, he talks about the public’s penchant for scrutinizing the accuracy of material culture and fighting techniques in film while ignoring the historical accuracy of plot points:
I find it very striking that audiences apparently want a sense of accuracy about violence, but not about plot. They cheerfully accept absurd plot developments (like Isabella being way too young and way too far way to have an affair with Wallace), but will complain if the sword fighting looks too fake. (Compare contemporary film violence to that from the 60s, for example, to see just how much effort Hollywood has put into improving the realism of its violence.)
Imagine for a moment a film in which the emphasis was on accuracy of the plot, but not on accuracy of the costuming or weaponry. Picture William Wallace running around in a 20th century British military uniform carrying an AK-47 but engaging in fairly accurate political maneuverings.
Most people would react to that poorly, I suspect, because Hollywood trains us that accuracy means specific things and generally excludes other things. But theatrical and cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare employ this device fairly frequently. Instead of setting his Richard III in the 1480s, like the historical Richard III, or in the 1590s, when the play was first performed, Ian McKellan set his version of the play in the 1930s, depicting Richard as a would-be fascist dictator. A particular favorite detail is the arrangement of 16th century poem “Come Live with Me and Be My Love” as a sort of Swing-era piece. The famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech becomes a political speech. It works beautifully, and while the setting isn’t faithful to the play as Shakespeare envisioned it, it works marvelously and offers a wonderful comment on the politics of both the 15th and the 20th centuries while still being true to the spirit of the play. This is a film making careful, clever use of its choices about historical inaccuracy.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this commentary lies in the comparison with Shakespearean theater. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the kind of bias he exposes here is just to expected from viewers, the comparison with Shakespeare shows us that it isn’t. There is indeed at least one genre which reverses the emphasis, taking us out of the realm of period dress and sword techniques and inviting us to dwell on the plot-line.
I want to underscore at least one aspect of this question about accurate plot-lines, namely the sense of a character’s world view. Historical plot-lines can be inaccurate for any number of reasons, but one of the most interesting and common inaccuracies would seem to be a penchant for reading modern thought worlds into the motivations of historical characters. In this respect, Mel Gibson is the gift that keeps on giving. Whether it be a southern plantation owner who doesn’t own slaves, or William Wallace crying ‘freedom’ as he is about to die, his historical characters typically speak to the sensibilities of modern peoples more than those of the era in which they purportedly lived. Whatever the (in-)accuracy of his dress or battlefield depictions, Gibson’s characters are often living anachronisms, thinking and behaving in ways that have less to do with the period than the social order of the modern day.
Here is another respect in which I think Game of Thrones is particularly good. For those of us who live in a modern republic, the logic of an aristocracy can seem quite vicious, often unnecessarily so. Why all the fighting? Is it vain ambition? And if these characters must fight for control of their worlds, could they not at least spare the children of their enemies? Even the title of the series points to the answer, but I believe it was Cercei who explained it best.
Again, this is fiction. Hell, it’s fantasy fiction, but it’s fantasy fiction pointing at a kind of world that has existed in human history, one many of us have trouble grasping. It’s a world in which heredity defines power, and even a child with the wrong bloodline is a very real threat to the powers that be. This too is a kind of realism, one which reminds us people in other times and places may not be able to act as we would, even if they wanted to. I admired Eddard Stark’s efforts to show mercy in this scene, and I expect I’m not entirely alone in this. But of course we call know how that turned out. We are 6 seasons into the show, and thus far, I have every reason to believe Cersei was right about this. Not just Certei. Martin too. This is Martin telling us something about the social order of a certain kind of world. His world may be fiction, but others like it would not be, and his story does indeed help to illustrate how those worlds work. Is it realism? Not quite. But you could learn a lot about real worlds from this kind of story.
So it seems the attempt to show us how certain people live in certain times and places always reflect the priorities of those who produce them. Are they trying to show us how people dressed, how a certain series of events unfolded, or how people thought about their lives in the context of the times depicted? One could find other priorities in a film, to be sure, but it would be a rare story that didn’t have some serious blind spots.
The funny thing about such blind spots is they can be hard to see at first, but once you find them, they can be equally hard to ignore.
Okay, so one of the ways I am cheating my way through this topic, so far, is that I keep picking examples where one can arrive at a reasonably sure sense of what the facts would say about a given issue, what would count as real if we chose to care about it. What about when you don’t know? What is realism when we don’t exactly know what the fact is?
Take the film, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner). Better yet, take the film Reel Injun in which director, Zacharias Kunuk discusses one of the challenges he faced in making Atanarjuat. He wanted to shoot some love scenes, but that raised an interesting question. How would two Inuits living essentially in the pre-contact era have actually made love. He couldn’t very well just have them start sucking face for foreplay, as would be the case in most love scenes, because Inuit in the precontact era didn’t kiss the way people do now. Lots of people have heard of an ‘Eskimo kiss’, which is essentially rubbing noses, or so we are told, but how does that work? Past movies set in the arctic depict this in rather comic terms, which was definitely not what Kunuk was going for. He wanted to portray this as accurately as possible. So, he talked to the elders in his own community and based his own love scenes on their answers.
So, is the ‘Eskimo kiss’ in Atanarjuat accurate? Is it realistic?
It seems rather likely that the answer is ‘yes’, but that isn’t entirely obvious. The elders Kunuk spoke to, might have been wrong. It’s certainly possible. Historical information isn’t carried in the blood, and customs change a great deal over time while people’s ideas about tradition are often rooted in the eras of their own youth. So, it is possible that Kunuk’s elders might have been factually wrong about an Eskimo kiss.
So what if they were?
Worst case scenario, the love scene in Atanarjuat is still the best answer that an Inuit director could come up with after speaking with Inuit elders in preparation for a movie with an Inuit cast and made essentially with an Inuit audience in mind. I can manufacture (as I just did) an objective question that Kunuk might have gotten wrong, but his answer is still the most authoritative I know of. It is certainly the most authoritative answer most of his non-Inuit audience will ever see. Whatever the facts of this topic, Kunuk’s portrayal is still a thoughtful expression of an Inuit perspective about the subject. That has to count for something.
So if someone asks me what is an ‘Eskimo kiss’, how am I going to answer them? I’m going to point them right to Atanarjuat, or maybe to Reel Injun. Of course, I could also say that an ‘Eskimo kiss’ is a silly western caricature of what different Eskimo peoples actually did, but then I’m still going to point them to Fast Runner, because what happens in Fast Runner is STILL the most authoritative answer to that question that I know of, at least on film. In effect, it is the most realistic film portrayal that I’m aware of at present.
The point here in this overly-belabored sub-theme is that realism isn’t always about objective facts. Sometimes it’s about perspective, Sometimes, it’s about the most authentic voice(s) you can find on a subject, the ones whose values and priorities are most relevant to a subject. This is particularly true of movies about exotic peoples, whether they be past civilizations, foreign cultures, or just the guy who does that really odd job. An outsider might manage a perfectly accurate portrayal of the lives of such people, but without some insight into their thinking, what would that be worth? Such insights must involve a native voice at some point. Better still when that voice can actually shape the narrative!
What to make of Indian casinos? I expect a lot of non-natives still don’t quite know how to answer that question. Maybe some Native Americans don’t either. But it’s an interesting question just the same, not the least of reasons being that anyone trying to answer it will have to struggle a bit with the larger questions about the politics of Indian-white relations. Some people handle that better than others of course. I’ve known some folks that seem to think of gambling as a kind of racial entitlement. These same folks don’t seem to think of Las Vegas or Atlantic City as a form of racial entitlement, but all foolishness aside, the topic does raise a number of interesting questions about jurisdiction and the economic impact of gaming in such distinctive communities.
The impact of Indian gaming on different tribes isn’t uniform. We’ve all heard the stories of wild success of certain tribes whose members became rich overnight. Most of us have heard speculation about the membership of certain tribes. Our incoming President had some words about Indian casinos back in the day. They weren’t any more thoughtful than the crap he’s spewing now. But of course these wild success stories are hardly typical of the many tribal casinos out there. There have been some disasters, or at least some scandals, as well. I recall once listening to Ron His Horse is Thunder, former Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe explain the significance of casinos in his own community. They provided a certain number of jobs, he told us. That was it. No miracle. No disaster. Just a steady livelihood for a certain number of people. That was his experience with Indian gaming. I hope I remember him correctly on this, because I reckon that’s a fairly common account of the issue. But of course all of these stories come with the benefit of hindsight.
It wasn’t too long ago that the entire subject of Indian gaming was uncharted territory, that the mention of reservation casinos raised all sorts of possibilities and few people had any real experience to bring to bear on the issue. It was around that time (the mid 90s) that I arrived in Navajo country. Numerous tribes had casinos at that point. The Navajo Nation was not among them. Some out there wanted casinos. Others didn’t. Folks kept a wary eye on the operations of other tribes, looking for some sign to help assess the prospects for gaming in their own community. In 1997 the Navajo General Council called for a referendum on the prospect of gambling on their lands. It was the second such referendum (a third would follow in 2004). It set the stage for a interesting debate which I followed as best I could.
Today, you can find a few casinos on the borders of the Navajo Nation, but in 1997 the answer was no. In some quarters, it was Hell No. The reasoning still interests me.
One of the most fascinating things about the debate over Navajo gambling in 1997 has to do with an aspect of Navajo origin legends. One of the greatest villains in these stories was a character, named Noqoìlpi, The Gambler. You can read more about him by clicking that link I attached to his name, but to put it briefly, this fellow just about wins the world and everyone in it by gambling. Frankly, I think there’s a lesson about the economic effects of modern financialization schemes and the growth of income inequality there in that story (seriously), but I’ll save that for another day. In 1997, the connection drawn by many on the Navajo Nation was a lesson about the evils of opening up casinos on the reservation. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of this argument, it certainly added a rich layer of meaning to an already interesting subject.
Of those working references to The Gambler into their arguments on the topic of casinos on the Navajo Nation, my favorite was the late Vincent Craig who ran an extended series of Mutton Man cartoons addressing this and several other issues in the Navajo Times. He really blended his own critique of gambling with a broad range of (extremely ironic) social commentary.
It all begins with a culture pill. .
Unfortunately, I don’t think I have copies of all the cartoons he ran on this topic. I don’t know that he got a cartoon in every edition of the Navajo Times, but I definitely have gaps in my own collection. Anyway, I collected enough to get the gist of his argument down. I’ll let Vincent and some of his colleagues tell the story from here.
Vincent Craig’s work (Click to embiggen):
A bit more on the subject, also from the Navajo Times (again, click to embiggen):
When I first got into Navajo country (many years ago) my old boss used to laugh and say that Ricola was traditional Navajo medicine. I remember him singing the name lightly as he got out a piece. No, he wasn’t suggesting that Navajos had invented Ricola. As I recall, his throat used to get scratchy during all-night chants. His remedy of choice, Ricola, helped him get through the long evenings with his voice intact. His phrasing was intentionally ironic, of course, but my old boss had in fact made this commercial medicine part of his own traditional regimin.
You can find that sort of irony in all sorts of traditional indigenous activities. It can produce the sort of wry humor of my old boss and his cough medicine, or it can give rise to deep suspicions. A lot depends on who is calling attention to the irony. The issue often comes up in my classes here on the north slope of Alaska where the dominant traditional themes are associated with hunting and whaling. The indigenous peoples of Alaska retain substantial rights to subsistence activities which include the taking game. That they frequently use modern technology in doing so hasn’t escaped notice, but what of it? That’s an interesting question.
The issue popped up a number of years back when the New York Times published a piece on the Fall whale hunt here in Barrow. Its title put the between technology and tradition front and center:
If the purpose of this rather clever juxtaposition wasn’t clear enough at the outset, one didn’t have to read far into the piece to see the point driven home rather clearly. In the very first sentence, its authors (William Yardley and Erik Olden) declare that “The ancient whale hunt is not so ancient anymore.” They go on to quote whalers themselves saying things such as “Ah the traditional loader” and “ah the, the traditional forklift.” And with that introduction, the authors go on to explore the paradox of traditional activities carried out with modern technology.
Suffice to say, many in Barrow were not amused.
Edward Itta, former Mayor of the North Slope, published his own response in the Alaska Dispatch News (ADN), suggesting that the authors had failed to grasp the cultural context in which indigenous whaling takes place. A subsequent ADN article focusing on Wainwright took the time to castigate Yardly and Olden for focusing on the nature of Fall whaling instead of Spring when whalers use walrus skinned boats. Yardley and Olsen too had commented this fact, but the point was easily lost in the overall narrative highlighting the use of technology in whaling practice.
I keep coming back to this piece, because the questions raised in that article keep coming back to me. Often it’s a student new to the region who fields the question in one form or another, is it still traditional if people can use modern technology? I struggle to get across the best answer I can. I can point folks to Iñupiat who can answer the question much more authoritatively than I can, but frankly, I think there is a reason I get these questions. As another outsider, I suppose, I may be thought a safe person to ask. I reckon they figure I won’t get mad.
…and I won’t.
This does strike me as an honest question, at least in the sense that those asking it usually seem to be sincere. Just the same, measuring legitimacy of native traditions by the use or absence of modern technology does skew the issue in some very toxic ways.
On one level, I find myself wondering if the Amish haven’t become the paradigm case for traditional anything in the minds of so many people. I reckon it’s up to Iñupiat to define their own traditions as they see fit, and to the best of my knowledge, there just isn’t anything in there against using the most productive technology available. The tradition is taking a whale, not doing it with a particularly pristine kind of harpoon, much less butchering it using only native equipment. The notion that using technology constitutes a failure of authenticity is an assumption coming from outsider.
It isn’t a particularly helpful assumption at that.
Which brings me back to the jokes at the beginning of that old New York Times piece. I can’t help wondering if the authors might have gotten the point of the humor wrong. Hell, it might have been their editor who skewed the whole piece, I don’t know, but in its final form that article clearly takes each of those jokes to be an admission of sorts, a subtle concession to the inauthenticity of the activities in question.
I read those with echoes of my own boss singing ‘Ricola’ in the back of my head.
It seems at least as likely that the point of the humor had something to do with the adaptability of tradition. The question may not have been, is this really traditional, but rather how could it be otherwise?
Not Yet (Nalukataq)
What makes whaling traditional? Yardley and Olsen touched on this when they noted the distribution of boiled muktuk (edible blubber and skin) to those present as the whale was butchered.
Much of the community comes to watch as a whale is burchered. More to the point, much of the community pitches in to help. Even more have helped in one manner or another to provide support for the whaling crews during the course of preparations. Where possible, employers grant leave to those engaged in whaling, and teachers accept absences during whaling season. We’ll work it out later. You would be hard pressed to find a resident of the North Slope who doesn’t provide some sort of support to whaling activities, even if it’s just acceptance of the way the whaling season restructures all of our other activities. Whaling is a community affair, and its impact on the community re-enforces numerous personal relationships.
The tradition is also found in freezers throughout the North Slope, many of which contain muktuk and other delicacies received as gifts from the whalers. It can be seen when a successful crew serves a meal to any who come by their home, and you can see it again during Nalukataq (a Spring festival) when pretty much anyone can walk into a the festival square, sit down, and receive all manner of food from these very same crews. What makes whaling matter is the way that it shapes relations between people all over the north slope, and in that respect it continues many of the same patterns that predate the presence of outsiders like me who ask too many questions, and sometimes fail to learn the answers. If we’re looking for the traditional components of whaling, this is where you will find them.
This social emphasis too is complicated as Hell, but it’s actually relevant. We can ask, for example, how the use of technology ties subsistence activities to modern markets, how use of a snow-machine instead of a dog team changes the work regime for participants in whaling and hunting. We can ask how the presence of grocery stores changes everything, and how the jobs needed to earn money for modern goods and services change the lives of people all over the North Slope. The answers to such questions might also leave us with a less of pristine sense of what tradition means in subsistence activities, but they point to a different sense of the problems at stake in these issues and a different sense of the threats to community practice.
Simply pointing at a forklift is a bit of a gotcha game. Unfortunately, it’s a game played all too often by outsiders looking at indigenous hunting practices. More and more, I find myself thinking the game begins when people look in the wrong place to understand these practices. They come and they watch the whalers at work on the ice or harvesting a catch on the beach.
Where they ought to be looking is in those freezers.
…okay folks, don’t come up here and literally look in people’s freezers.
My point is that people who want to understand the significance of whaling or any other aspect of traditional subsistence need to look at the way the work and the results are shared. They need to look at the festivals, the potlucks, the serving events around town, or simply at the moments when someone walks up and hands someone else a helping of food. That’s where the tradition is held together, and that is precisely why the damned forklift was traditional after all.
It was quite sometime ago that a friend of mine passed along a copy of China Miéville’s book, The City & The City. As with an awful lot of fiction, no sooner had I decided it looked interesting than I set it aside in pursuit of other (probably less interesting) things. Anyway, I finally dug it out awhile back and for a time I set a few other things aside in order to pursue its own story. I had to unsee some work to read this book, so to speak, but that’s a sub-reference you (my own reader) won’t get for a few more paragraphs. Just keep reading and I’ll pretend I didn’t notice.
I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, though you may pick up a thing or two. I’m almost sorry about that.
This is a detective story. I hate detective stories, but I love the premise behind this one, and I can think of no better genre to explore that premise. The City & The City is definitely worth a read.
This book is narrated by Inspector Tyador Borlú as he investigates the murder of a young woman. Borlú is reasonably reliable as far as narrators go, but there is a lot he doesn’t understand, and a few things he’s really not allowed to understand, or at least to acknowledge, which of course limits his ability to communicate with us in the novel. It isn’t that Borlú is consciously deceptive or even outright deluded, at least I don’t think so. But he he operates under extraordinary constraints.
His constraints are of course our own, at least until we put the book down and resume our interest in other things.
The central problem of this story is that Borlú lives in a world that is only partially available to him, and to the others in that world. Our detective lives in the city of Besźel, an Eastern European city in the modern world. At it happens, the streets of Besźel are interwoven with those of another city, Ul Quoma. You might think this is a quaint way of talking about the neighborhoods of a single community, but if you thought that, you would most certainly be very wrong. These are two very different communities, nestled right in together in the same physical space. The difference between them is maintained by the most stringent expectations about what one may or may not recognize, who one may speak with and who one may not. To see the wrong person is in fact a terrible crime in this world. To speak to the wrong people – unthinkable. And thus the cities are parted, not by physical space, but by social space maintained and enforced by an arcane set of expectations which Borlú and the others in this story accept at face value. This is simply how their world works, and the practice of discriminating between those one can acknowledge and those one cannot are, to the best of their knowledge and ours, absolutely inescapable
Borlú lives in Besźel, and the body of the young woman was found in Besźel as well, and so we begin the narrative in his half of this bifurcated universe. If you have begun to suspect the plot will wander over the boundaries of this world and into the City of Ul Quoma, then you are catching on. And if you were thinking that poses a problem for Inspector Borlú, then you are definitely on target here. It doesn’t help that the murder victim had been conducting research that threatens the boundaries between these communities, or that someone with power in both would seem to be manipulating the details of the investigation. Our narrator is thus caught between two worlds, allowed only to see one of them, even as his case spills out and over the boundaries between them. We (his readers) have only to follow along in the hopes that he will negotiate the boundaries between Besźel and Ul Quoma and find the truth of the matter before it destroys him.
It’s a rich story, and I’m not even going to attempt to capture its full impact. What most fascinates me about this book is Miéville’s sense of the boundary maintenance between the two communities. Physically contiguous, they are separated only by social artifice. How does one unsee people even as he passes them on the street? Is it a choice? A habit? Perhaps, even a pathos of sorts?
People in this world do actually see each other, of course, and if they didn’t, they would literally trip over each other (and worse), but they must not be seen to acknowledge each other. And so they carry out their lives according to an elaborate set of expectations governing just how one goes about unseeing what is literally right in front of them, and all around them, to be sure. Miéville put a lot of thought into how this works. His treatment of the subject is both fascinating and compelling.
What doesn’t work for me is the murder mystery itself, but then again, they never do. I always feel pulled along by such stories, teased by the obligation to try and resolve the central mystery, knowing full well that I will do so at precisely the moment the author finally decides to tell me what I really need to know. It’s not a game I enjoy, and unfortunately The City & The City is no different on this account. I wish I could say otherwise, but that’s how I feel about the central crime drama here.
The mystery of the crime itself is of course interwoven with that of the differences between the two cities. The one draws us (along with Inspector Borlú) into the other, gives us a reason to cross the boundaries, to explore regions we ought not even to see, and to learn a bit about just how these cities work. As I read the book, I must admit, it is the conventions of the city and the practice of seeing some things and not others that interests me. In effect, it is this premise of the story that provides the actual dramatic tension I feel in reading the book. I am never quite as invested in solving the crime as I am in learning how the cities work. So, the murder mystery leaves me a bit ambivalent. It’s not what interests me about the book.
I suppose we could explore the same theme with something a bit more like a high fantasy theme or a conscious exploration of mysticism, but that would have shed way too much trite all over the story. The theme of a detective novel lends the whole thing a pedestrian quality that keeps us focused on the perfectly human, even mundane, parts of this world. I can’t help thinking that’s critical to the full concept. This isn’t a story of mystical realization. It is a story about perfectly normal people struggling against perfectly mundane limitations to learn something that ought to be plainly visible to all. That this knowledge isn’t visible is uncanny, infuriating, and intensely interesting.
Just what ain’t Cricket? I really wouldn’t know the answer to that question, but I am occasionally quite amused to find out just what is cricket, or at least who has learned to play and how they play it. More than most of the big world sports, it seems that cricket lends itself to regional variation, and there are some really interesting variations out there. I’m not a very sporty guy, but I’m thinking Kilikiti Estonian style out on the lagoon for Piuraagiaqta.
Kilikiti (Samoan Cricket).
This Masai team appears to play a pretty standard version of the game, but you wouldn’t know it from their uniforms.
And heading back out into the Pacific, we get Trobriand Cricket.
Today we have a Guest Post from a friend of mine, Nancy Sypniewski. I met Nancy when when she began doing volunteer work at an animal shelter where I served as PR, but calling her a volunteer doesn’t even come close to suggesting her full value to the shelter. She was amazing. And she was also amazing to talk to. I recently asked Nancy to share one of her stories for the Blog, and she has graciously agreed.
I don’t know if Nancy will have time to come back and answer any questions, but I wanted to include this story, because it deals with a subject I think about a great deal, teaching something in a cross-cultural setting. The story dates back to a training exercise from her days in the tech industry.
We were working in South Africa. Our job was to implement a computer system that would automate the inventory of the power utility. This was back in the day of mainframe computers and big unfriendly user terminals. We first had to understand their business, determine the best method to automate their inventory, modify the “best fit” computer system, convert their existing data, thoroughly test both the modified system and converted data, develop and test customized training materials, and then finally train the people who would be using the system. These steps took thousands of man hours and multiple years.
We were finally ready to start developing our training materials. We were reminded that our audience would be tribesmen, mostly Zulu and Sutu. These men would arrive in the morning wearing a loin cloth and sandals, they would change into company provided blue jumpsuits and steel toe shoes, and then back into their tribal clothing before heading home at the end of the day. It was imperative that our training materials be full of simple language, pictures and diagrams, not because these men were of low intelligence, quite the contrary, the issue was language – English was often the 3rd, 4th or even 5th language they had learned.
Training day arrived. Our instructor had the students lay their arms across the keyboard and watch the letters appear on their terminal screen for every key they had touched. The room was filled with awe. The instructor then told the students to “Hit the key with C L E A R printed on it.” Each and every student did just that, they hit the key with the solid blast of their closed fist, causing many of the keys to pop off and fly all over the classroom. Needless to say, the students jumped up and frantically gathered the keys, now totally afraid of the new “machines” they had just destroyed. We assured them that all could be easily fixed and sent them into the break room for early tea and cookies.
Within about 20 minutes we had popped the keys back onto the keyboards and were ready to resume class. Since I had been with most of the students multiple times over the years and was a familiar face, it was decided that I would restart the class and give reassurances.
I asked that they restart the exercise by laying their arms across their keyboards while watching the letters appear as before. I then carefully said “Now, I want you to depress the key with C L E A R printed on it.” Everyone hesitated. Just then, a man in the front row raised his hand. I asked him what he wanted and he said, “Madame, I do not know what to say to make the key sad.” Luckily, everyone laughed and we had learned the lesson of careful word selection. After that, we always reminded one another to never use a $10 word when a $1 word would would do a better job.
How do you adapt course material to the cultural context of a tribal college? I have had enough conversations about that topic in the last couple days to last me a little while. Whether any of them will help or not is of course an open question, but for the moment, I have a little time to reflect on the matter.
It feels like I am never on the same page with others when the topic comes up. Most of the cultural materials I have seen have been saturated with over-extended metaphors, clunky diagrams with over-simplified cultural motifs all over them, and deep philosophical discussions on the English gloss of some native term. When such materials show up, I always feel some trepidation. When such materials show up, I can’t help but want to step outside and get a breath of fresh air.
It’s no big deal, really. I get that feeling in most meetings sooner or later. Why should those aimed at indigenizing education be any different!
But seriously, before moving on I suppose I should say that my ‘exhibit A’ for how not to to an indigenous educational policy would be Diné Educational Philosophy, at least as it was taught when I was at Diné College. At the heart of this policy was a grand metaphor in which call lessons could be divided into four stages of learning, each of which corresponded to four stages of life development, which in turn corresponded to the four cardinal directions, and from there the metaphors multiplied as various aspects of Navajo cosmology could be mapped onto this four-part division. I should say that the whole thing always fascinated me, and there are a lot of interesting details about it that just are not going to make it into this blog piece. In practice, it was an awful clunky system.
Mind you, it was college policy that all classes had to incorporate a methodology based on this metaphor into each of our classes. New full-time instructors took classes in the subject (unless it conflicted with our schedules) and part-time instructors had a training day on it (or at least they were supposed to). So what most of us did was to draw a circle on the board, divide it into a four-piece pie, attach the requisite metaphors, and get on with what we would have been doing anyway. To say that this paint-by-numbers approach to an indigenous education was less than helpful would be putting it mildly. As often as not, it was the more “traditional” students who were displeased to see one of those circles go up on the board at the beginning of a lesson.
So, leaving my past frustrations aside, how would I prefer to approach this? I’m still relatively new to the North slope, so my learning curve is still pretty steep. And tonight, I think I may have just had a mini epiphany, the kind that advances the process for me. It came while reading the blog, “Stop and Smell the Lichen,” written by Rainey Hopson, a woman living in Anaktuvuk pass.
A wonderful piece entitled, “A Good Person,” had the following observations about how one judges character in a small village:
In the village you know everyone, and everyone knows you. You know their secrets and their deeds of kindness. You know wether they are kind to the elder that needed help walking on slippery ice. You know every mean word that they ever said. You know the bad as well as the good. You always act as politely as you can, because you know you will have to deal with this person for the rest of your life, wether you like them or not. You know, after years of interaction and observing a persons actions wether they are good or not, wether you can trust them for certain things, wether or not this person speaks with authority and knowledge. We see each other as permanent beings in our life, and the job and the money and the physical objects as fleeting insubstantial things. A very different view. A different set of scales.”
There is a lot to think about in this piece, but what turned my head back to the subject of adapting lessons to the cultural context of teaching native students was the realization that this is a critical difference between the great city of Barrow (with its enormous population of around 4,000 people) and the smaller villages with populations in the low hundreds.
To someone living in a modern city, much less a metropolitan center, the difference must seem negligible. Living in a town of four thousand and isolated from any major cities by hundreds of miles of tundra must seem to pose many of the same challenges as living in one with a few hundred people. But there are critical differences.
Barrow does have a small town feel. But here it is still possible, even for long-time residents, to see people one does not yet know, or to choose whether one wishes to deal with at least some people. If the population is small, it is not so small as to render relationships entirely inevitable as the village relationships Mrs. Hopson describes in the passage above. Small wonder that our “village students” often seem to have trouble adapting to life in the big city of Barrow, or (more to the point, perhaps) to life away from home.
Thinking about this, I made a small connection to just one lesson in one of the classes that I teach, an introductory course on cultural anthropology. What part of my anthropology class did I connect to this piece? Well life in the Amazonian rainforest of course.My textbook for that class contains an extensive discussion of the limits of leadership by personal credibility. When leaders lack coercive authority, the ability to influence others depends on the ability to form direct personal relationships with them. Some anthropologists have attempted to put a number on the possibilities, an objective limit to the number of people whose actions you can guide without the ability to issue an order, point to a rule, or hand out a set punishment.
What is the magic number? Pssh! Don’t believe everything I tell you!
…Okay, if you insist. To say this is an oversimplification is an an understatement dipped in some damned weak sauce, but anyway, the limit is somewhere in the low hundreds.
It occurred to me that the difference between the smaller villages and Barrow falls somewhere in the vicinity of that same set of limitations. Whatever the number in question, the point is that there is some point at which a population becomes too big to ensure significant personal interactions with someone in any given household, and THAT means real differences in the social organization of the community. What Rainey Hopson described in her blog is a quality of social life that is present in the smaller of the North Slope. If the Amazonian specialists covered in my anthropology texts are to be believed, it also exists (or existed) in a number of Amazonian societies.
So, in reading Mrs. Hopson’s blog I had a little ‘aha!’ moment about a connection between something my students have not experienced at all (life in an Amazonian village) and something they with which they will most likely have some familiarity. Even those students who have not lived in the villages will likely be familiar with the difference. They will know there is a difference, and those that have lived here all their lives will have formed ideas about that difference. This means that I can use the comparison as a jumping off point for exploring a range of related issues. I can now use the bridge between these topics as a means of helping students understand he foreign topics of Amazonian villagers and in turn use the study of those Amazonian villages as a jumping off point for discussions of local living conditions.
So, now I have a link between something I will teach at least once a year (and the truth is it will come up in other classes). The question is what to do with it? Some might view this as an opportunity to create a lesson plan, some set exercise in which students will be invited to meditate on the linkage. And such a lesson may or may not be a good thing. To me, however, that is not really the point.
For myself, I will address this point in as many different ways as I can in my different classes, asking students a variety of questions, and working to see just how far I can push the connection, just how much it can explain, and where else might the topic lea.
The point is that I need more moments like that, more links between the familiar pieces of life here on the North Slope, and various strange topics that I cover in my classes (many of which are as foreign to my life experiences as to those of my students).
And that is where my revulsion at so much prefabricated cultural literacy comes in. It is a simple question of where you want to put your effort. If I’m a new teacher, just in from off-slope, I don’t need an exercise or a diagram that will draw this connection for me. …one that I can use in my classroom with or without understanding the point at hand myself. I don’t need a master mataphore in which to plug all my regular lessons. What I need to help me do my job is a venue wherein I can learn as much as possible about life here in this area, where I can talk to people from the local communities about things relevant to my teaching responsibilities. What I need is something that helps me form personal relationships with the right folks, learn the right information from them, and put that information into practice in my courses.
And here is where so many educators in this area miss the boat, because it is simply easier (and perhaps more effective when dealing with accreditation agencies) to produce formulaic educational materials than it is to build learning environments. It is easier to dictate cultural content to instructors than it is to facilitate learning that will enable an educator to draw connections between their subject and the cultural environment in which they work.
This is how I actually approached my classes at Diné College, and it is how I hope to approach them here; learning as much as I can about the cultural setting and engaging my native students in dialogue about the issues that affect their lives here.
If circles go on the board, hopefully, it won’t be because they have become a procedural requirement.
Note: The photo is a picture of the village of Wainwright, AK. The Anthropology text mentioned above is John H. Bodley. Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System. Fourth Edition. (Boston: McGraw Hill) 2005. Rainey Hopson’s blog is called; “Stop and Smell the Lichen.”