Ceci n’est pas du papier

Shadow: In 1933, Roosevelt took the U.S. off the Gold Standard, right? … So you can’t just go into a bank and redeem money for gold or silver. You said money is the most powerful god in America. But money isn’t actually worth anything.

Mr. Wednesday: I have a piece of paper, hm? But I want this salt shaker. You have the salt shaker, but you’re willing to take my piece of paper for your salt shaker. Now, why would you do that?

Because this isn’t actually a piece of paper; it’s a story.

And the story that you heard over and over and over again. And it’s been drummed into you that this is worth something. This is of value. No matter what country, culture, or religion. The whole world loves… money. The greatest story ever told.

 

– Episode 204, “American Gods”

Teaching “Just the Facts”

In the course I’m TAing for (a Masters level American Religious History course), I was given the opportunity to give a class lecture. The professor wanted me to bring my own work and knowledge, given that the lecture material was related to my own area of study (Catholic immigration and nationalism in the US). While I have had the opportunity to lecture in the past (and design my own portion of the syllabus to then teach), this was the first time I taught material chosen by someone else.  Continue reading “Teaching “Just the Facts””

On Kings and Trump Cards

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

During the Super Bowl, RAM Trucks debuted a controversial truck commercial splicing images of Americana with a sermon excerpt from slain Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

After outrage gave way to discourse, cultural critics were quick to point to the irony of Dodge’s signification. In the originating sermon, “The Drum Major’s Instinct,” King critiques self-interested pursuits that hinder people’s ability to see the value in others. He literally calls out Americans who ride in expensive “Chrysler” vehicles for the ego trip. NB: FiatChrysler Automobiles is the parent company of RAM.

To make the point,  the left-leaning magazine Current Affairs re-edited the commercial with an audio excerpt from the same sermon that they believe to be more indicative of King’s message. Continue reading “On Kings and Trump Cards”

“But When it Comes to Investing…”

Picture 4

Did you ever see this Prudential ad from a couple years back? It features some fun footage from the Candid Camera TV show, back in 1962.

What’s so interesting about the ad is not the basic lesson in sociology — though it’s pretty good, I admit — but the punchline at the end. For the company is literally banking on the fact that it is indeed human nature to follow others despite the closing’s apparent message to the contrary. For the whole point of advertising is to sway the public’s opinions and actions — whether it’s to get us to take off our hats or give our money to this as opposed to that investment firm.

They’re hoping that, when it comes to investing, you’re no different from those poor guys on the elevator — you know, the ones who no doubt felt like they chose to turn around. Coz if you’re the only one — the truly lone wolf, the rugged individual — who opts to go with Prudential, well…, that doesn’t help them, now does it.

Given his interest in understanding myth as something that carries two messages, one smuggled in by the other and which might even contradict the other, I think Roland Barthes would have appreciated this ad.

semiology

On the Systematic Use of Normative Vocabulary

41uV3awt-uL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_In History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People’s Republic of China, John Powers surveys a wide variety of histories of Tibet, written by Tibetan, Chinese, and western (i.e., American or European) authors. The story of the relations between China and Tibet — is Tibet an independent state or merely a small part of China’s empire? — can be told in many different ways, depending on the interests or agenda of the author spinning the narrative. Of particular interest to me is how Powers notes the normative vocabulary of the historians he surveys. The authors tend to systematically use normative nouns and adjectives — with positive and negative valuations attached to them — in their narratives. See the following two tables: Continue reading “On the Systematic Use of Normative Vocabulary”

The Golden Age

As a college professor I often hear faculty lament the students we have “these days”; there’s a nostalgic decline-and-fall narrative we tell, according to which we’re far removed from the golden age when students were prepared for college and could actually read and write upon arrival. If only we could return to the seventeenth century, when students came to college reading Latin and knowing their Seneca and Cicero!

However, when this narrative is shared (and, to be honest, I’ve told the tale myself), what I hear — what that narrative seems to implicitly suggest — is this: things were better back in the old days, before they let a lot of women and blacks and kids from the working class into college. Continue reading “The Golden Age”

You Are What You Read, with Leslie Smith (Part 1)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

1. Name a book you read early on that shaped the trajectory of your career.

MythologiesI remember standing in the checkout line at the campus bookstore with my copy of Roland Barthes Mythologies. I admit that I was suspicious of any book supposedly so profound that was also so small. Its size is deceiving just as much as its structure is unique: the first part of Mythologies is comprised of a series of short essays that provide the pop-culture exemplars of Barthes’ theory on how mythmaking operates (covering everything from food to clothing to politics), while the latter half is comprised of a theoretical essay – entitled simply “Myth Today” – that more overtly addresses the workings of this type of semiotic turn. Barthes rejected common definitions of myth that equate it with “falsehood” or “the stories that dead people believed.” Rather, Barthes understood myth as an absolutely ubiquitous process that involves the transformation of “history into nature,” or, put differently, the manner in which otherwise constructed things are made to appear natural or inevitable. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, with Leslie Smith (Part 1)”

Why, When I was a Kid…

Picture 8The other day I was cruising around the web reading old New York Times pieces and came across one entitled “Does Religion Oppress Women.” As with many things on the web (e.g., the banana slicer for sale at amazom.com), the comments section is the best part. For example:

Picture 5kaybee’s comment stood out for me because it nicely represents a commonplace strategy — a strategy at home within the academy no less than in comments on the web — of positing a pristine originary moment that, once expressed or shared, is only later corrupted and polluted. It’s a model not unlike the telephone game (problematically known as “Chinese whispers” earlier on), which judges the contemporary against the pure source, and one that we find in the U.S. supreme court (when a justices measure current behaviors by the standard of what the writers of the Constitution intended) as well as in the study of etymology itself (whose own etymology denotes studying the true meaning of a word). Continue reading “Why, When I was a Kid…”