Sometimes moving to a new location can change your place in history as much as it does your place on the map. I first noticed this a day or two after arriving in Barrow as I watched a small child drive an ATV down the street. No-one seemed to notice, not that time or the next. I’m pretty sure that it’s as illegal here as it is most places I’ve lived, but law on the books and law in daily life aren’t always the same thing. So, I saw this for the first time, and the word ‘frontier’ came to mind.
…and I smiled.
Of course, the notion of a ‘frontier’ (with all its ideological baggage) would seem to place Barrow on the cutting edge of history. That notion comes up from time to time, especially in the context of oil exploration and drilling, but also with scientific research, and other topics that people like to project onto a scheme of ‘progress’.
At other times, the logic of history places us behind the curve, so to speak. By “behind the curve” I mean that we fall behind someone else’s idea of the direction history is supposed to be going. It might seem more reasonable to think of the issue in terms of straight-forward disagreement, people do things that others don’t approve of, but the point is that people sometimes filter such disagreements through ideas about the general arc of history. It may be a history they urge on the public, or it may be a history they take for granted, but people often plot their values on some sense of an historical timeline. It’s not real history that I’m talking about; it’s an ideological projection of the way history ought to proceed.
I was reminded of this quite clearly the other day when a student of mine recently shared the video below. It starts with some beautiful outdoor shots of Barrow, AK, but (readers be warned) it continues to show the butchering of a Bowhead whale. The video might seem a jarring journey to some, but for most of us (I believe) here on the North Slope, the transition seems quite natural. A whale harvest is a joyous event as it means food for a lot of people. Much as the serene images at the start of the video, a whale harvest is prone to make us want to smile.
I asked what kind of comments, the video had gotten. A moment of scrolling later, I received my answer. The images of whaling had drawn criticism both on the video and on my student’s Facebook account. On the video itself one individual had written; “It’s really strucked up about how cruel people are to animals. It would be great for all animals and humans to go vegan and to respect each other.” I smiled and laughed as I recalled the first time I posted images of a whale harvest to my own Facebook account. I’ve since learned to post warnings and what-not.
This is one of the many ways that life in Barrow (and much of Alaska) differs markedly from that of the lower 48; hunting is a way of life for many people up here. It simply isn’t for the majority of people down there, and at least some of those people imagine all of history moving towards their way of life. The many artifacts of subsistence hunting are bound to rub such folks the wrong way. A friend once commented about the necessity to remove one’s furs before hitting the Seattle airport, and we both laughed. Surrounded by folks in all-manner of furs, I could only imagine the reception some of the day-to-day outfits of the North Slope would get in other places.
I remember once trying to find a gift for a friend who likes Native American art. A vegetarian with significant interest in animal welfare, she would not have appreciated the ivory earrings or baleen etchings locals produced, nor the many varieties of fur. Most of the native artwork here involves dead animals of one form or another, and that really should come as no surprise in a community where hunting is for many people a fundamental part of their way of life.
The issue isn’t simply a question of whether or not to support or oppose hunting, fur, whaling, and so on.; it’s also a question of how you frame the issues. There is a big difference between the commercial fur industry and the hand-made clothes of locals who’ve eaten the meat previously kept warm by that same fur. Likewise, there is a big difference between a whale taken for commercial purposes and those whose blubber will be shared out to the community. Whether or not that settles the issue is another question, but quite often I think people simply fail to notice the difference.
Which brings us back to whaling!
There is a world of difference between the significance of whaling up here and the meaning given to it in other places. This problem was all over a New York Times article on Spring Whaling published a few years back. Its author framed the whole issue in terms of ‘tradition’, then proceeded to worry over the use of technological innovation in pursuit of that tradition. I also recall a discussion of the Makah whale hunt on a random website (I can’t find it now). Participants simply dismissed the idea that native whaling could be anything but a token gesture, a practice akin to preserving a museum exhibit. A similar view can be found in one of the comments to this post, Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Ice-scapes at the blog, Cutterlight. In response to this post, a woman named Kirsten Massebeau wrote:
There is no humane way to kill a whale. Today we know whales and dolphins are higher beings. Sometimes these whales suffer for up to 5 hours after being harpooned. Isn’t it time we stop letting the word “tradition” be an excuse for doing something so wrong. Please stop murdering the people of the sea! You are obviously wearing store bought clothes and shoes. Surely you can see your way clear of murdering our ocean friends.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this woman (as with others) raises some legitimate concerns in her comment, but I also think there are legitimate answers to those concerns, and I think the whole thing thrown askew by a certain refusal to take the Native Alaskan population seriously.
What all of these examples have in common is a refusal to allow or even to imagine the practice of whaling in the modern world. They cannot even fathom the possibility that such a thing could occur in the present world. To many of these folks, whaling (or at least the indigenous version of it) is by definition a thing of the past, a mere tradition, and one gathers an empty one at that. This seems to be a common perception of whaling on the North Slope, and that perception injects a great deal of prejudice into any subsequent discussion. It is a prejudice shaped and defined by people’s ideological views about history as much as anything else.
Whaling here on the North Slope is first and foremost a native matter, but it affects us all. The effort to bring in a bowhead is not limited to the crew of a single boat. Extended families and friends all work together to outfit and support a given crew, and the entire community of the North slope accommodates the needs of those involved. Time off from work is granted without question when it’s time to cut a trail through the ice. Homework deadlines are extended when it’s time to butcher and cook the blubber. Blubber and meat are shared throughout the community following a successful whale harvest. Whaling is no quaint tradition on the North Slope; it is one of the most important economic activities taking place up here.
Seeing the importance of whaling to an entire community, the condescension of some of these random comments can be quite maddening. Of course these are merely random comments on social media, but they provide a telling glimpse into the way that the larger public closes itself to local realities. Folks just can’t seem to find room in their view of the present for activities such as whaling and subsistence hunting. Presented with evidence to the contrary, it seems a common response to construe such things in terms of a museum exhibit.
…even when that exhibit is real people going about their daily lives, very much in the present day.
Epilogue: The disconnect between people’s perceptions of whaling works both ways. I recently received a charming example of this when a student of mine who teaches in one of the local villages passed information about the New England whaling fleet of the 19th century onto her own native students. They wanted to know how the meat and blubber would be shared.
You’d think a sentence like that would have a pretty clear meaning, wouldn’t you? If that whole 3 word sentence is a little complex, then surely the single word “like” must convey something pretty simple and obvious.
Unless it doesn’t.
But before I go on to suggest what I mean by that, let’s take a moment to note that that word alone is creeping (by itself even) into more and more of our public discourse. (Discourse? Now there is a word I haven’t used in awhile.)
It seems rather innocuous, the little “like” button underneath a Facebook entry, a Youtube video, or a post on WordPress. I can see another one right now up in Stumbleupon bar above the page I’m working on. I’ve long since lost count of the number of discussion forums that make use of similar conventions. Let’s not even get into the whole reddit thing okay! My point is that an awful lot of mass communication these days comes with the invitation to express our approval in terms of an upvote, like button, or some similar device. Ever greater portions of our news and entertainment now come with a prefabricated seal of approval just waiting for us to click yea or nay and thus to make ourselves heard.
…in a really limited way.
But what does our little click of approval mean? What these buttons mean to us and what they might mean to the websites that host them isn’t always clear. Often, the significance seems pretty obvious. You liked what you read, listened to, watched, or otherwise consumed. But sometimes, there is a twist to the content, something that skews the meaning of your approval. If you are reading a news article about a political speech you like, I’ll bet you are happy to give your blessings to both the speech and the article with a single click of a button. But what about a well written piece about a political speech by that fart-for-brains bastard you can’t wait to vote against? Well, then the ‘like’ button only applies to the article itself, right? …or do you refrain from clicking the ‘like’ button at all in cases like that? We don’t have a button that helps us to distinguish content from style or subject matter from the simple decision to call our attention to it.
And I’m sure most of us are familiar with the dilemma posed by a friend describing on Facebook something awful they’ve just experienced. Suddenly the like button just isn’t quite the tiny gesture of personal support that it has been for the last hundred or so mind-numbing left clicks we’ve executed while watching bad TV or not-quite-reading the memos at work. So, you sit there for a moment and think about it before telling yourself you better actually write something this time. And since it’s significant and personal, you’re going to have to think about it and choose your words carefully. …dammit!
But perhaps there is a sob-story in this too
I have 5 minutes of time to kill, and I want to enjoy it by reading funny stories from my friends and thanking them for it with a simple click of a button. I’m even happy to cheer folks on when they tell me good things about their lives. But now one of my close friends has just experienced a major tragedy, and she snuck a note about it into this stream of otherwise happy-and-light fluff I am using for my entertainment. Now I feel obligated to say something meaningful, and I’m really not ready to get all emotional, and fuck I only have 2 minutes left before I have to do something anyway, and I have no idea what to say. Fuck!
Presumably this sort of Facebook entry would create a similar tragedy for anyone with enough heart to know just how frustrating that kind of moment can be. The social niceties of liketry can be very complex. We need a button that says; “I don’t really like what you’ve just described but I like you and want you to know that I support you in your struggles, …at least enough to press a button about it.”
On WordPress at least, hitting the “Like” button a little akin to saying “Hey baby!” It is often a way of telling someone you exist and inviting them back to your apartment. Whatever else the ‘like’ button means around here, it is also a potential means of hinting that someone should come visit your own blog, where of course you hope they will read and like your own material. …which is what one will likely presume when you see that they have hit the like button underneath your own article.
…unless it means that they just want you to come back and read their new post.
The possibilities of mutually re-enforced self-deception here are astounding! Sometimes I think it is entirely possible that nobody is reading anybody’s work anymore, online or otherwise, or even looking at the pictures. Could WordPress be a community of illiterate button-pushers, liking each other in one great big orgy of self-referential liketude? …with nary a word ever making its way into a single skull!
I can’t think about it anymore; that way lies madness!
I suppose the fact that giving gestures of approval may be a means of getting them back didn’t exactly begin with the internet, but sites like WordPress have certainly re-arranged the economics of liketry in new and interesting ways.
By ‘interesting’ I probably mean ‘just a little sickening.’ …yeah.
I recently got a bit of an object-lesson in what it can mean to ‘like’ something on Stumbleupon. You see, when I first started using that service, I wasn’t entirely sure how I wanted to set my standards for liking a webpage. Was it enough if I liked something a little? Or did I want to be a hard-sell and like only the very best of the very best? It really didn’t take long before I realized that there are real advantages to liking more pages (more followers being chief among them), so I loosened up a bit, but I still insist on somehow keeping a trace of sincerity to the whole thing. I don’t ‘like’ things that I don’t actually like.
For the first month or so I followed my usual approach of restricting approval to those things about which I could voice clear and unmitigated approval. I ‘liked’ only those things which I really did like, completely and unreservedly, from the bottom of my soul, …or at least my liver. I held back from approving many thoughtful articles on a range of interesting subjects because I had a problem with something in the third paragraph of this one or the specific language used in expressing a minor point in that one. Pictures on the other hand? Well, I found quite a few of them to be like-worthy, not the least of reasons being that I’m not a photographer. I wouldn’t know how to pick at them if I wanted to, …well not that much anyhow. The point is, that I liked a lot of pictures.
Of course the thing about Stumbleupon is that the site shows you more of what you like and less of what you don’t as you establish the difference by clicking those buttons. So, I suppose I should not have been surprised the that thoughtful articles on religion and politics answered the call of the stumble button with ever decreasing regularity, or that they had been replaced with images of kittens, sunsets, and street art. The more time I spent on Stumbleupon, the less useful information I got from it.
I figured this out when I heard a strange and stupid voice saying; “this site is useless for anything but lolcats!” The voice was of course my own. A moment later, I think I called myself an idiot.
At least I should have.
Because of course I had been telling the Stumbleupon site to supply me with frivolous content all along. Every time I hit the ‘like’ button I was effectively saying “more of these please.” And since I was only saying that when I looked at things about which I had few serious concerns, I was pretty much telling the software demons at Stumbleupon to keep it light and fluffy when they chose my content.
Once I figured this out, the remedy seemed rather obvious. If I wanted to see more interesting material, I was going to have to give a pass to the next pretty scene and (more to the point) swallow at least some of my reservations long enough to say ‘yes’ to a opinion piece or three. I made the adjustment, and today I am finding the material I get from Stumbleupon far more interesting than I did at the end of my first month on the site. I simply had to stop thinking of the ‘Like’ button as a sign of ultimate approval and start thinking of it as a sign of general interest, or even an outright request for more of the same sort of content.
Of course that wasn’t the end of my adjustments. I find that my likes page at Stumbleupon includes articles I really don’t agree with at all, but which I might want to read again, anyway, or to reference for purposes of one of my classes. Somewhere along the line it dawned on me that I could use my Stumble account as a kind of caché for anything of interest to me in any way. So, the ‘like’ button on Stumbleupon no longer means as that I actually approve the content at all; it means that I am interested in reading it again. Sometimes it means I dislike the content of an article enough to want to come back to it, …probably to pick a fight of some kind over the matter.
So, I guess I do ‘like’ something that I don’t like, which is a fact that I don’t like at all.
…I need a drink.
Lest you think this ramble is entirely about the trivialities of internet liketry, I should say that the whole Stumble incident has me rethinking my overall philosophy of likalism. yes, it is. I’ve always been reluctant to place my stamp of approval on most anything in life, and I can’t help thinking this business showed me something interesting about the mental landscape that produces this pattern. Perhaps, I’m a little to prone to hold a flaw or two against the overall value of an otherwise interesting work. Would it be wiser to think of my approval less as a pass on the problems and more as a sign of interest?
Then again, I’m not much sure if I like what I’ve just written. I mean what the Hell? Somewhere in here I touch on some really interesting questions (or so I thought) about how the net skews our sense of meaning and commodifies approval, …and then I end up with this quasi-self-help lesson. I hate self-help lessons! Seriously, how the Hell did I veer so far off the path on this one!?!
If I were y’all, I wouldn’t like this post.