“They Made the Whole Thing Up”

highfiveDo you know Radiolab? I think it’s a tremendous show, offering sophisticated social analyses but doing so in a very engaging format. The other day they replayed an older story (from November 2011) on the history of the high five.

Give it a listen. It’s about a half hour but it’s worth it. (And they make reference to the above pic.)

Continue reading ““They Made the Whole Thing Up””

“She Fit That Profile”

colvinToday is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during the now famous March on Washington. To mark that date, Culture on the Edge asks: Do you know who Claudette Colvin is?

For if we’re marking anniversaries, which are part of a discourse on origins, after all — anchoring the present as significant inasmuch as it is somehow related to an authoritative, annually commemorated past — then, given this blog’s critique of how we usually think about identity, there might be something interesting to learn by taking a moment today to look at how we today talk about that period in U.S. history that we now know as the civil rights movement. Or, more specifically, to ask how we pick our origins points and the anniversaries that we celebrate, and what these choices about the past have to say about who we think ourselves to be today? Continue reading ““She Fit That Profile””

From the Archives

babyThe degree to which we, today, draw upon events in the archive that we know as “the past” and then use them for contemporary purposes is evident whenever you look at an old picture — particularly a photo of a person or situation that, long after the pic was snapped, came to signify something that we now hold dear (whether as representative of something valuable or maybe even dangerous). I think of this each time I see those slick sites that allow you to smoothly scroll between an image from the past and then how it looks in the present, with people in either period or modern dress appearing and disappearing against a seemingly stable backdrop. So too with the curious juxtaposition of an old photograph held up to match a current background. Just what do we do with the gap that we in the present can see between before and after, then and now — or do we even “see” such a gap? Do we instead see the past seamlessly leading to the present, or perhaps the past not just informing but even haunting the present? For behind statements of difference, such as “It looked like that then but it looks like this now,” there is a presumed sameness: the eternal “it” that just changes shape.

For instance, what do you make of Adolf Hitler’s baby picture, above? Is it even possible to view it as just another baby or is there an evil lurking there…? Continue reading “From the Archives”

Hitler’s Ride

icon_bug2Photo credit: NPR

A recent NPR story by author Maureen Pao tells of a sort of bait and switch going on with some of the world’s most famous consumer products, the branding strategies of which are tied to national identity.  Did you know that Levi’s jeans are now no longer manufactured in San Francisco (nor even the United States), or that Stoli Vodka is now not “Russian” at all, but is produced in Latvia? Even the iconic body style of the original Volkswagen Beetle was last produced in Mexico.  Additionally noteworthy to Pao was the decision to move the production of Britain’s famous condiment, HP sauce, to the Netherlands, something likened to “selling the family’s silver.” Continue reading “Hitler’s Ride”

Islamophobia

Beck-brotherhood1The recent round of criticism of FOX News’s online interview of Reza Aslan has got me thinking a little more about this charge of Islamophobia that you often hear leveled by those on the political left — as in those who criticized any analysis of this episode that failed to out the FOX network (or other media personalities) as stirring the embers of hatred among some segments of the U.S. population of Muslims, either at home or abroad. While the bizarre questions posed to Aslan about not disclosing an identity that he in fact routinely discusses in the media — insinuating, it would seem, that some worldwide conspiracy would finally be evident if the American public knew that a Muslim author had written a book on Jesus?! — or the breath-taking conspiracy theories of some commentators on the political right (such as Glenn Beck, in action above) are quite troubling to me in a number of ways, I’m not so sure about this label of Islamophobia.  Continue reading “Islamophobia”

God of the New Slaves

filepicker_OG2K7IwZSumne2nleOBA_jesus_walks_kanyeIf you are waiting for Jesus’s second coming, today is the day, in the sonic form of Yeezus – Kanye West’s 6th solo album that has everyone talking, criticizing, buzzing, praising, and worshipping. Like the figure Jesus – and many scholars, I might add – Kanye is a master rhetorician (so don’t worry about his lyrics becoming flesh). He takes words, and twists and bends them into pliable strategies that more often than not work well for his market. He commands power and authority – not by virtue of what he claims, confesses, and professes – but rather, by using the pre-packaged power and authority that society has granted to particular words (and ideas) – like slave and god. Social theorist Bruce Lincoln reminds us that things such as authority are not entities unto themselves. Rather, they are effects that have to be authorized in particular ways across time and space. So what’s all the hype about? Continue reading “God of the New Slaves”

Changing Symbols and the Swastika

Chilocco Indian Agricultural School basketball team 1908-09

Symbols serve as a significant way to express identity within society. Crosses generally identify someone as a Christian, a hammer and sickle as a communist, and black and white houndstooth as a University of Alabama fan. Of course, that simple equation provides an arena for significant competition about exactly which symbol represents which ideas. The apparent incongruency of Native Americans wearing swastikas on their basketball uniforms (Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma, 1908) derives from the assumption that symbols have a defined meaning. As with identity labels generally, the meanings of symbols like the swastika shift over time, and seldom does a symbol have only one meaning.

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Blurred Boundaries

clintonobamaIn preparation for the first meeting of Culture on the Edge, at the University of Alabama, the group looked at some resources that purport to study identity in a more dynamic, theoretically-engaged way–e.g., works devoted to studies of diaspora, hybridity, syncretism, etc.–in hopes of finding models for how to study the production and movement of identity but without (unintentionally, perhaps) reproducing the very thing one means to study. Continue reading “Blurred Boundaries”

Writing a History of Origins

As part of an event marking the contributions to the study of religion made by (the now late) Wilfred Cantwell Smith, held at the University of Toronto in the Spring of 1992, Jonathan Z. Smith presented a paper entitled “Scriptures and Histories.” Soon published in a special issue of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (and recently included as chapter 3 of Smith’s On Teaching Religion), it deftly picks up on themes in the former Smith’s work but expands on them considerably since, as the latter Smith writes near the opening of his essay: “We share last names, but not much else.” Continue reading “Writing a History of Origins”