On one humid, overcast summer day, an unpredictable ethnographic experience got me thinking about urban myth-making, sanctioned versus unsanctioned narratives, and contested public space.
The incident occurred as follows.
Among a group of architectural tourists on Columbus’s Avenue of the Architects, I observed as our tour guide — who I’ll call Eric — detailed I.M. Pei’s design methods for the plaza. Eric was a walking encyclopedia of architectural data, dropping design concepts such as subtractive architecture and coffering. He pointed out how the various architects who contributed to the environs aimed for a loose structural consonance. “Look how that walkway lines up, visually, with the clock tower,” he encouraged. He signaled toward the parallels between the texture of the underside of the library’s flat roof and the honeycomb pattern on nearby plaza benches.
We walked slowly toward the plaza’s center, trailing behind Eric as he approached the sculpture backwards, gesturing this way and that, deeply engaged in tour guide rhetoric. As we neared the foot of avant-garde sculptor Henry Moore’s Large Arch at the center of the plaza, an unexpected interruption resulted in a moment of awkward pause. A middle-aged man to our left, slightly unkempt and with cigarette in hand, interjected into Eric’s official soliloquy. “It’s Godzilla’s leg-bone, man!” he exclaimed, stepping forward from where he had been leaning against the red-brown brick of Pei’s library façade. Face bright with the attention he drew, from a distance this temporarily emboldened, unsanctioned guide traced the contours of the bronzed form with an outstretched finger. Continue reading “Moore’s Large Arch is Godzilla’s Leg-Bone”
On Wednesday October 18, Québec passed a controversial new law that bans residents from wearing face coverings while providing or receiving government services — including public transportation. Neutrality has become one of the key talking points since the law was enacted. While the law itself is framed as “an act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality,” Québec Premier Philippe Couillard and Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée have both defended the law against accusations of religious discrimination by emphasising that the law bans all face coverings, and not only religious ones. These assertions of neutrality are, however, more complicated than they at first appear.
While many Québec residents are outraged at the anti-Muslim implications of the new law, I want to consider how this law neutralizes some apparently religious expressions while prohibiting others along with the rhetorical strategies the government has employed to solidify its apparently neutral stance. Continue reading “Creating Neutrality”
The vision of white racial purity that drove the Nazi regime to perpetrate genocide in the mid-twentieth century has persisted into the present, most recently made visible by American white supremacist groups. The idea that bodies not only represented but also manifested an essential cultural supremacy may seem to be an outdated and backward view of the world. And yet, a recent surge in popular interest in ancestry and DNA may reveal the ways in which biological essentialism continues to inform popular American notions of identity.
As returning readers may already know, Culture on the Edge’s first chapter started in the Spring of 2012, when seven scholars of religion decided to work together on a common project devoted to studying identities — how they’re made and negotiated. Our blog began a year later, as a public place where we could experiment with the ideas on which we were working, trying to find discrete (and usually overlooked) examples where the work of social formation could be seen, if we just looked at them in a new way. The many posts that resulted (Chapter 1 on the menu bar) were meant to be pithy and written for a wide readership, modeling what a scholar of religion who reads across disciplines might contribute to understanding society at large. And then, about a year ago, we invented our second phase, encouraging other scholars to use the blog as a site to continue to advance the analysis of how social life works; Chapter 2 is therefore a portal for peer review posts, inviting submissions that, in the voices of new authors, press in new directions the insights on identification practices that we’ve been exploring all along. Continue reading “Developments at the Edge”
Emphasizing differences can generate ill-will and even violence, as we have seen (again) with the events in Charlottesville and the responses to it. But constructing differences is a central component of forming identifications and is not necessarily negative. The 1940’s US propaganda film Don’t Be a Sucker rejects discrimination against minorities in America and compares that position to Nazi ideology. While the film presents the creation of divisions as a problem, it also illustrates the positive side of division in a less direct fashion. If you haven’t seen it, it is worth viewing, particularly the first half of the film. Continue reading “Are Divisions a Problem?”
Recently on Netflix I watched an interesting episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (“Producer’s Backend,” season 16 episode 3, which originally aired 8 October 2014). The narrative in the episode focused on a movie producer named Brubeck who used his power over young actresses — i.e., girls under the age of consent — to force them into sexual quid pro quos. Throughout the episode, the SVU detectives uncovered a number of victims, but in each case their hands were tied insofar as the assaults took place so far in the past that the incidents were past the statute of limitations.
As they investigated victims coerced more recently, they found that the movie producer had learned to cleverly skirt age of consent laws:
Detective #1: In the last nine years, all of Brubeck’s movies have been shot in Pennsylvania, Washington, or Montana.
Detective #2: All states with an age of consent of sixteen, and a mistake of age defense.
Prosecutor: Meaning, the guy can have sex with a fourteen-year-old and claim that he thought she was sixteen.
When I read the glowing New York Times review of the recent movie Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017) by the Israeli-American director Joseph Cedar, I was intrigued about what A.O. Scott reported as “one of Mr. Cedar’s slyest conceptual jokes,” or the director’s deliberate decision to cast all non-Jews in the roles of the New York Jews who make connections between rich Jews and Israeli politicians. Scott neglects to explain what is clever or funny about the casting choice, though he does list some of the dangers that could have emerged from this choice: “obnoxiously shticky performances; sentimental tribalism; easy moral point-scoring,” and then immediately declares that “None materialize.” The potential problem of the casting choice appears briefly only to be immediately negated, and so disappears as a problem. When I thought of the casting choice I was led to ask a question that nagged me before I saw the film: “What does it mean for a non-Jew to ‘act’ like a New York Jew?” In other words, how was it possible to give direction to the non-Jews about how to ‘appear’ Jewish in stereotypically ‘Jewish’ roles as New York shysters, without inadvertently reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes? In most of the positive reviews of the film, this problem did not appear as a problem because the movie was described as a satire. Continue reading “Were We ‘Bamboozled’ by “Norman”?”
My department has a new website, with updated faculty photos. If you have known me for awhile, you might notice that my hair is a bit longer, now past my shoulders. By comparing photos of me as a faculty member, or even as a teenager, anyone can demonstrate that my hair is longer now than it has ever been in my life. That is a demonstrable fact about the past.
Of course, the length of my hair is not particularly interesting. As with most narratives (which is what histories present), the more intriguing issue is the explanation why. Why, at this point in my life, have I allowed my hair to grow? A friend who had not seen me for over a year commented on my hair last week, giving me the opportunity to create a narrative about my hair. My explanation was that I have not gotten my hair cut since becoming a full professor this past August. But, my own explanation is not necessarily complete. In fact, any of us tell stories, like our identifications, strategically. Perhaps (to create a narrative about my narrative), my response was a way to emphasize my recent promotion. The length of the hair was just the opportune time to insert that personal tidbit into the conversation, or perhaps that explanation was said in jest. Continue reading “Long-Haired History”
In the Fall of 1980 I was traveling home by bus from my first year as an undergrad, going for a long weekend visit. I was attending Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, partway between Montreal and Toronto, so I changed buses in Toronto to make it home, not far from Niagara Falls.
It was the first time I’d been in the Toronto bus terminal; built in 1931, it consisted of an interior waiting area, where you bought tickets and coffee from a machine, and, as per the above photo, a large outer area where buses pulled in and people lined up.
It was Thanksgiving and, as I recall, there was a throng of people, jostling either to get into lines or through them to yet other lines of their own, all waiting for their ride on a chilly Fall night. Before going away to university I’d lived in a small town — about 21,000 people back then — so being in the big city, on my own, in a crowded bus terminal late at night, was a new experience for me. Continue reading ““No Thanks; I’m Good.””