Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Last day of Master Class

The master class finished today at lunchtime. The last three days have been very stimulating and challenging. Although I felt a bit overwhelmed and a bit daunted on the first day, I warmed up and warmed to Michael Herzfeld over the duration of the Master Class. There were approximately 25-30 people who attended the class from many different Universities around Australia. Professor Herzfeld is the Head of Anthropology at Harvard University and there were a number of anthropologists attending and a distinct majority of the class were women, at around 88%.

At first I found some of the ideas quite difficult to follow. It was not the lack of anthropological background as the class and its content were interdisciplinary and most of the writers referred to in his talk were either a little bit familiar to me or I'd come across their ideas. As much as I enjoyed listening to Michael talk and was impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of Greece and the rest of the world, I felt at times like I was getting lost in the back streets and side alleys drifting away from his point as he eloquently roamed through the history, politics and cultures of a vast number of countries. I felt a little frustrated that I couldn't immediately access and grasp the concepts. However, by the second day I felt their meaning and application slowly creeping up on me. By the end of the second day and particularly the third I started to get a hang of the model and the ideas and to consider potential applications of them to my own topic area. I also really enjoyed talking to the other students and since many of them are further along in their research process than myself, it was particularly valuable to hear about their experiences and their reflections.

This evening I was talking with my partner. A story she told me reminded me of an example that I think illustrates the concept of cultural intimacy and social poetics at work. I thought I'd articulate it in my blog to see how well it applies. When I worked in IT providing technical support, it was not uncommon for other techies and myself to laugh and joke about the stupidities of clients who called up for help. This joking was something that we were embarrassed about. On some level, we felt that it wasn't something we should do. I recall us debating this regularly. We were conscious of its effects. It's immediate effect was to release tension and this was certainly felt to be needed, particularly after experiencing a difficult and abusive call. But on reflection we identified how it reinforced the barrier between the public and the organisation and so we sparingly resorted to this practice.

Reflecting on this now in terms of cultural intimacy, I can see how, by calling the client 'stupid' and 'dumb', the client is metaphorically and literally put down and separated from the group. 'Put down', in the sense of disparaged but also in the very physical sense of setting the client apart from the organisation embodied in the act of putting the phone down and disconnecting. The jokes and laughter have a personal and a social function. They bring individual staff close to each other and unite them in the process of distancing the client and putting them in their place. The group gains solidarity through these acts.
But the release of tension as expressed through jokes goes further than just reinforcing the 'us' and 'them' relationship between the staff and the client. The effect of the cultural intimacy amongst the techies defined by the shared customs used to release tension also normalises the behaviour of the client through a process of naming and classification. 'The dumb one', 'the crazy one' - each client falls into a category, and in the process they are classified and domesticated into a taxonomy that applies to everyone. We are all crazy and dumb at times.

The function of the release valve works to dynamically construct the inside and the outside but it also reproduces the social relation itself at an individual and at an organisational level, by normalising errant behaviour and incorporating it into the order of the group. I think, and could be way off here but I think this process describes social poetics in action.


Mac said... normalising errant behaviour and incorporating it into the order of the group.

Ah! I suspect that hits the nail squarely on the head, actually.

The organization of an informal taxonimy allows for the creation of a lexicon which affords communities a flexible and rapid strategy for the arrangement and rearrangement of hierarchies as individuals move from circle to circle--

So when you and your IT friends put on your coats and go home to attend other functions with your friends and spouses, any of you could perhaps find yourself relegated--among, say, blue-collar types at a backyard barbecue--to the outsider's position of "my partner, the computer geek."

Clearly, some levels of "other" are preferable to others in almost any hierarchy.

Ms M said...

Exactly! In those five words you have expressed two levels of othering, so seemingly simple and yet invoking nuanced complexity. For 'my partner' suggests almost immediately a position outside the default heterosexual pairing and 'computer geek' identifies a professional identity outside that of the blue collar worker. Furthermore, both labels are not quite legitimate but a deformation of the usual categories of the taxonomy - a computer geek is not a profession, a partner is not a legal status (although computer worker and spouse are) so as you say these operate at the level of informal categories.

Mac said...

In those five words you have expressed two levels of othering, so seemingly simple and yet invoking nuanced complexity. Now--where this all gets quite interesting and tricky is when you realize that those very same linguistic markers specifying difference can also be used as an entry into a circle within a community.

Take the "my partner the computer geek" example: "my partner" can serve as a marker of difference in that it's a label of a relationship outside of the societal "norm"--unless you're attending a predominantly gay and lesbian party--then the same marker provides entry into the immediate community.

"Computer geek" on the other hand does seem distancing, in some situations--but in an informal setting, much less off-putting than would be the more formal "IT consultant" which leads me to wonder how much humor and self-deprecation, serves as a social-strategy tool to cushion our "otherness".

As another example: I see I spelled taxonomy wrong, before--which goes to demonstrate
1. typing at 4 am is tricky business
2. I've revealed myself to be slightly outside the community of people for whom its a comfortable and familiar everyday word.

Dear god this stuff gets subtle.

Ms M said...

Cushion our "otherness". That is a great phrase. I really like your analysis...I would not have considered taxonomy misspelt a signifier of identity but possibly would have interpreted it as "cold fingers". With the cold snap we've had here in the last few days (snow in the desert!), I've had to type that word numerous times to get all the letters in and in the right order!

Mac said...

Ah--summer here, remember?
Typically I don't factor misspellings into judgements about identity, either; though I've encountered those who do.

Thank you for your stimulating take on this. I'm sorry I didn't take the class, now!

Ms M said...

Oh Yeah - Summer in the Northern hemisphere. Forgot that bit...:-)