Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ciggies, continued: Wittgenstein's lesson

The freedom to choose whichever brand of cigarette one prefers is thus constrained by the discursive framework that defines what smoking one brand or another can signify about the smoker. But as important as the choice of object is, equally important can be the choice of how to consume it. The way one smokes says something about one's thoughtfulness or nervousness or attitude toward pleasure, or any one of another of dispositions. The cigarette is a prop, as all actors know.
Long drags, short puffs?Holding the cigarette cupped Nazi-style conveys an attitude of analytical assessment and judgment ("very intereshting... but shtoopid!" as Arne Johnson's Laugh-In Nazi says). Oscar Wilde's heroes smoke languidly, reclining on Persian pillows and aphorizing that "A cigarette is the perfect type of the perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and leaves one unsatisfied." But not all smoking is about exquisite unsatisfying pleasure. Hardboiled Bogarts bogart, squeezing all the intensity possible from experiences that are scarce, fleeting, and perhaps not even pleasurable.

Wittgenstein was famous for the way he smoked while teaching. Without pausing from his thinking-out-loud he would take a cigarette from the pack, light a match, and then, as if he had forgotten what he was doing, continue to follow his own thoughts. Meanwhile, the match would burn down, coming closer and closer to singing the philosopher's fingers. Always, at the last possible second, Wittgenstein would in a single gesture bring cigarette to lips and match to cigarette, then shake the match out -- all without missing a beat in his philosophizing. It was a brilliant illustration of the rich embodiedness of language games. It also offered a lesson in power, for it fascinated philosophers studying with the master, who began to imitate him in their style of smoking. Generations later, this mannerism has spread through the philosophical community, infecting many who have no idea that Wittgenstein gave it salience to begin with.

What is true for cigarettes is true for all cultural goods. Cultural economics will remain hobbled unless it develops a multivariate methodology for analyzing the many dimensions in which symbols can be consumed, the many ways in which choosing a cigarette (or any other cultural good) involves expressing a preference, the many kinds of "good" that one can seek to make one's own via the consuming of a cigarette (or a book or a play or a song). Without a cultural stylistics, cultural economics will not be able to bring into view the costs and benefits of cultural choices.

I am a non-smoker, by the way.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar... But What Brand of Cigar Really Makes the Difference!

David Sedaris offers a hilariously spot-on discussion of how choosing which brand of cigarette to smoke was for him like choosing a religion. He runs through all the ways in which what you smoke defines who you are for others: never lend money to someone who smokes Marlboro Lights but you can be sure you will get your money back from someone who smokes regular Marlboros, Camels are smoked by people who write bad poetry, etc. etc. Distinction here is not about class -- or at least, not about class alone, pace Bourdieu. The cost is pretty much the same (cigarettes are all about the same price). What is at stake is who you are as a person, what you saying about yourself as an ethical being.

Sedaris' monologue is brilliant not just because he is so astute at identifying the types of smokers associated with brands (though he could make millions as an ad executive based on these insights), but because he shows how a matter of taste is laden with power, a choice imbued with high anxiety. A wonderful illustration of the phenomenon Foucault analyzes in his last works on the history of sexuality.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The "Hyde Park as Liberal Enclave" Meme

The Spectator, picking up on the New York Times and LA Times meme: "One potential problem for Obama is his time in Hyde Park, the liberal enclave where the University of Chicago is. Hyde Park is like Berkeley or Cambridge, Massachusetts and definitely outside what would be normally seen as the American mainstream."

Hyde Park like Berkeley? I wish!

Where's my Chez Panisse, my Peet's, my Freight and Salvage folk music mecca, my sunshine, my City Council establishing a nuclear-free zone, my counter-cultural ambiance? All we have is fab bookstores and five mediocre Thai restaurants. Who lives here? Not aging hippies, but econ, law, business and med school profs who can afford the million-dollar properties, along with middle-class blacks and whites and thousands of hunkered-down students. The U of C itself ain't no Berkeley or Harvard. Our university has just announced a $200 million initiative for a new Milton Friedman Institute, for cripes sake, on top of the hundreds of million just spent on a brand-spanking-new business school. Our public policy school concentrates on survey design and econometrics. Our grad and undergrad students self-select for marine-corps-style learning experiences, not frisbee-flipping.

Hyde Park has been an enclave, but not a political enclave. What lies around it is not the real world where real, conservative Americans live -- it is a world of extreme poverty. And Hyde Park's survival as a middle-class integrated neighborhood enclave was the work not of liberals but of the conservatives who ran the University back in the 1950s.

This is not to say that there are no leftists in Hyde Park. It is only to say that the idea that Obama was living in a cushy Latteville where he never would meet a Republican is ludicrous.

Monday, June 09, 2008

What does the new Status of Forces agreement mean for the future of Iraq's already-devastated archaeological sites?

With the Bush administration rushing to finalize a Status of Forces agreement defining relations between the U.S. military and Iraq , chances seem good that no one will raise -- much less push for -- a more robust collaboration between our forces and the beleaguered site police working for Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. The Iraqi site inspectors are short of almost everything they need to do their jobs: vehicles, gas, weapons, helicopters, walkie-talkies. To support the Iraqis in protecting what is after all not just their but also our heritage would be quite easy and inexpensive, and would be a public relations plus.

Unfortunately, like so many other opportunities, this one is likely to be missed, and the pillaging will continue.
Why do arguments against the "retentionist" cultural policies of source nations ring so false?

The answer is that those making them -- the heads of encyclopedic museums -- are so clearly arguing in bad faith. Their agenda is not to promote exchange of cultural materials: that could be accomplished through loan or touring exhibition agreements that preserved the source nation's ownership of the items. Rather, it is to make it easier for more antiquities to flow into the antiquities market and, via collectors or through direct purchase, into their museums' permanent collections.

Nor are they interested, really, in protecting archaeological objects, either in the ground or out of it. The claim made by Cuno, de Montebello, et. al. is that if they would relax their own anti-export laws, poor source countries could sell their "excess inventory" and raise the money needed to improve site protection and museum conservation. But money could be raised far more effectively by changing our own laws. A tax could be imposed on all sales -- and even on gifts -- of antiquities, with proceeds dedicated to anti-looting and conservation efforts in the countries of origin. Such a tax would be small change for the wealthy collectors who drive the market. A single Mesopotamian figurine sold last year for $58 million. Had it been taxed 3.5% this one sale would have provided enough money to cover the entire 2003 budget of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.