Mon Jan 13, 2003

How Peculiar

Drapetomaniac, who often leaves great comments about my posts, went and left a great comment about this post. Talking about Anthropological approaches to understanding other cultures, she notes that she was

struck by how peculiar the anthropologists managed to make the most banal occurences in Other cultures.

it’s become a game among my friends and i to try and apply this technique to what is normative in the US. “drapetomaniac begins her work day with the ritual consumption of a beverage of brewed leaves from the tea plant, which is associated in her culture with awakening, perhaps because of its caffeine.” that sort of thing.

This is an important point. Horace Miner uses the approach to brilliant effect in Body Ritual Amongst the Nacirema, but it’s also possible for that sort of clinical description to become a barrier to understanding, a kind of wilfully obtuse way of reading a situation.

The best example I know of this is an essay by Bruce McCall called “In the New Canada, Living is a Way of Life”, which can be found in Fierce Pajamas, an anthology of humorous writing from the New Yorker. McCall’s report of a trip to Canada is written in the quasi-anthropological prose of the National Geographic or New York Times feature writer touring around Russia, c.1982: serious, respectful and entirely missing the point. Viz:

The cabin attendant on our Air Canada flight answers a request for the correct time in almost perfectly unaccented English. She will not be the last Canadian in this new Canada of hers to try meeting a question with an answer, to make her reply her way of dealing with a query…

The plane approaches the airport runway cautiously, as if the Canadian pilot were unwilling to risk landing until his airspeed was throttled back to almost nothing and his wheels were fully down.

Everywhere the same gradations of blue and green and yellow and red and brown and orange and purple and taupe and mauve and pink and beige; city and countryside, summer and winter, in this new Canada, the only color is that of a single spectrum attempting to encompass all the hues of the rainbow…

In this land of the musk-ox, the beaver and the moose, there is no musk-ox or beaver or moose meat to be had. The man behind the counter at the meat store is little more than a butcher. The remains of cows and sheep and pigs are all he has to sell…

“They say we’ll get some rain today.” “They tell us you’re up here from the States, eh?” “They never let you park in that spot without a permit.” Who are “They,” who seem to know all, to control all, in this new Canada? The Canadian we ask blurts out the answer we expect. “I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about,” he sputters, careful to not look us straight in the eye.

The church, save for the minister, the choir, the sexton, and perhaps a hundred parishoners huddled in a space easily large enough to accommodate a hundred and thirty or more, is empty. The stone walls lack paint. Bits and pieces of colored glass serve as windows. Music is provided not by orchestra but by a lone pipe organ. Men shuffle among the worshippers solicting coins and paper currency—-anything anyone can afford to give. There is no talking, no playing checkers, no smoking allowed.

There are no schoolchildren with bouqets to see us of at the airport. Just as there had been no folk dancers to greet us when we arrived. This is the new Canada.