David Bowie and Sonic Parody

For most of my 20s and early 30s, I was an avid –some friends might even say rabid — karaoke singer. I often sang Bowie songs, even when I knew it was a terrible idea. (“Ziggy Stardust,” anyone?) “China Girl” was a staple when I sang weekly at Deon’s karaoke gig at the now-defunct Irish Eyes, in Somerville, Massachusetts.

The other day, I was walking my daughter to school, when we began to sing together. I drifted from ABCs to “China Girl.” As the words came out of my mouth, I cringed and immediately switched to what she calls “The Number Song.” (That’s the pinball song from old school Sesame Street). It should be obvious why that happened. I mean. On its face, the song just feels like your typical Pinkerton bullshit.  (Yeah, sorry-not-sorry, Weezer.)

I suck at writing about music, but the essence of my admiration for Bowie’s version of that song is that feels like sonic parody. It pokes fun at orientalism. A close friend who sang it at one of our karaoke spots in Atlanta said it always unsettled her to sing the “…visions of swastikas…” line because it was “the highest note in the song.” Is that the point? Or am I imagining it?

It’s in the white of my eyes.

Finally, I keep referring to “Bowie’s version” because, as you know, there’s an earlier Iggy Pop version. They co-wrote the song. And it wasn’t until I thought to play them back-to-back, that I could even begin to think of Bowie’s version as parodic. Both have the pseudo-Chinese lick/riff, but in Bowie’s version it feels so stark, clear, intentional. The music video doesn’t hurt. (Or maybe it does).

Anyway, this whole post is me trying to deal with my feelings about Bowie’s death. I am at a loss as I try to reconcile how gutted I felt about the death of someone I did not know, and who, like his musician cohort, did crappy stuff. But I did know his music, and it’s glorious.

Two videos. The first (h/t Erin McKeown) involves one of my favorite vocalists, Luther Vandross, who did the vocal arrangements on the Young Americans album. The second is the infamous “China Girl.”




“It don’t take a semiotician…” Or, what we talk about when we talk about bush meat.

This weekend, Newsweek published a relatively controversial article about the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Here’s the cover:

chimp ebola

Let’s just say it’s not exactly an original piece of journalism either.

I found myself frustrated not only by the cover and the article, but also by the editor-in-chief’s condescending response to his critics:

Not exactly the kind of response you want from an editor-in-chief, right? I vented to Facebook friends about the magazine cover, the thin claims of the article and its editor-in-chief’s rude response to critical tweets. One of my friends pointed out that the magazine has been propagating race-baiting click bait for a while now. (Yes, I used the word ‘bait’ twice, and we, the scholars, have bitten). So it shouldn’t be surprising to see the old trope of apes standing in for black folks or sexually charged Grubb Street prognostications regarding ‘back door’ entry of Ebola into the US gracing its front pages. (As one tweeter noted, It doesn’t take a semiotician to see what’s going on here).

Nor is surprising to see ‘exotic foods’ as the site for the latest in what journalist Howard French calls ‘ooga boogah’ writing on the Ebola epidemic. As French recently wrote,

He has also referenced Chinua Achebe’s biting criticism of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to bring attention to how Western media continue to write about Africa.

There are some pretty standard “Africa” tropes in the article, which incidentally, takes place in the Bronx: a Ghanaian interlocutor speaks with a “thick accent”; the “heat and stench… assault” the authors in a (Bronx) market. The authors seem to mock the irrational fears expressed by Donald Trump while also trafficking in them. But the article is mostly a superficial account that overstates what is known about the trade in bushmeat and the biological and public health implications of an unregulated industry. The scientific studies it cites are small and cautious about the implications of bushmeat traffic at the borders of the US. The experts to whom they speak provide their best guesses about the public health stakes of loose border controls. The article also raises as many questions as it answers:

1. What the heck are they talking about when they are talking about bush meat? While the scientific literature is clear about what they mean by bushmeat, the article seems to lump all kinds together. “Bushmeat” has become a catchall for every kind of meat that one might transport across international borders, including the mollusks, grasscutter and dried fish found in a variety of West African cuisine. None of these are culprits in the Ebola outbreaks. But the article also made me wonder about how I should think about the locavore/hunting-for-food lifestyles that are increasingly en vogue among a certain class of Americans. Should American hunters be worried about the animals they kill and prepare for eating? (Seems so.)

2. So, let’s say we want to focus on threats from current outbreak of Ebola, as the title of the piece suggests (but isn’t really done in the article, except to say that Ebola was not found among animals in one of the studies cited). Which animals are coming from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia? How many of them are capable of harboring deadly viruses like Ebola?

3. By the authors’ own account, dining practices have already changed because of the outbreak. The authors can’t even find any bushmeat. Their Ghanaian source is telling them that it’s increasingly difficult to find bushmeat these days. Isn’t it worth explicitly noting that people’s fears might be prompting all kinds of rapid change? Now that we know that, might we ask what other kinds of change is possible: are hunters, butchers and merchants now handling bushmeat with greater caution?

I leave with Dave Chappelle’s hilarious bit on race and food:

Rich people’s shit and other fun things in humanitarian pop culture

A few years ago, I wrote a paper about the brouhaha over Salma Hayek’s breastfeeding a Sierra Leonean baby. I delivered that paper a few places and it started a relatively long and fairly complicated relationship with what I’ve been calling “humanitarian popular culture.” Into this category, many things fit: the satirical Matt Damon’s Children ad on House of Lies; those episodes of “Will and Grace” where Grace’s boyfriend, Leo, works for MSF in Cambodia; and those ethically suspect ads on television that ask you to give 10 cents a day — or whatever they say the price of coffee is these days –to save the life of a sick, too-tired-to-swat-flies child. And let’s not forget Product (RED).

Each time I gave Salma Hayek boob talk, someone would ask me, usually once the crowd had dissipated, “Have you seen this?” followed by a description of some version of the white savior narrative in popular form. The last time I gave the talk, 2012, “this” was this. (Hint: It’s Kony 2012, for readers who really don’t want to give that thing any more clicks). And we all know how that one ended.

When I was preparing an early version of the talk, a close friend asked me whether I had heard about Salma Hayek’s involvement with the partnership between Pampers and UNICEF. Yes, of course there is an ad:

In the ad, we learn that for every time a (presumably white-ish, Western-ish) woman buys a pack of Pampers, a (presumably brown-ish) child in a poor country receives a vaccine. Or as my friend put it, “Basically some rich person’s shit is being transformed into lifesaving technology for poor people.” By the laws of syllogistic inference and transitivity: I buy this; I buy this precisely to shit in it; my buying this provides you a vaccine; a vaccine prevents your premature death; therefore, my shit saves your life.

Frankly: Here’s my shit; you’re welcome.

But wait: there’s more. American Standard’s Flush for Good campaign:


Oh, that Kevin!



Intimacy in Africa (on film)

Intimacy in Africa (on film)

Chandani Patel writes:

When Hollywood does Africa, there’s little in the romance and love department, unless it’s about Karin Blixen making ill-fated choices (in white colonial men) or some random family who move to Africa and fall in love with the land … and the flame trees (you know the list I’m thinking about). When a white do-gooder escapee from European/British stultification falls for a gorgeous Ugandan–she’s going to get chopped up by Idi. If ever we see black characters falling in love, their romantic world is overshadowed by various external crises—warlords, corrupt politicians, locusts, famine, war (then a nice white aid worker helps one kid). Love is rarely explored in terms of the emotional and existential crises that love between two white people from America or Europe is explored, or in a silly, light-hearted way that focuses on the couple’s respective families and friends behaving badly (as in the style of, say, ‘Love Jones’ or the remake of ‘About Last Night’). [ Read more at the link ]

On bureaucracy

Last week in my anthropology and global social problems class, students learned about bureaucracy and how anthropologists engage with the concept. We read the introduction to Hummel’s famous book on The Bureaucratic Experience, which is a pretty good primer on how bureaucracy transforms social action, human relations, and bureaucrats themselves.

We started class with this clip:

A brief description: With ominous music playing in the background, a young woman stands in the doorway of what appears to be a government office. Her eyes follow something — someone? — off-camera. Within moments, we see that she has been watching a dark-haired man who soon stops in the doorway, eyes wide and frightened. She responds with a sideways glance of her own. The woman is buzzed over to a desk where a bureaucrat, dressed in a black sweater adorned with leather, lazily chews on a toothpick and shuffles papers. She takes a seat at his desk. The bureaucrat interrupts her as she begins to speak and gestures for her to wait as he pours his coffee.  After the coffee is poured, the woman tells him that she would like to register as a freelance worker. The bureaucrat rapidly fires off a series of requests, procedures and esoteric form names. With each request, the woman slaps down a form with defiance. The final administrative task that the bureaucrat requires, stapling documents together, is presented to the audience with great suspense. The two stare at each other and then at a distant desk, where a lone stapler sits. The two dive for the stapler; the bureaucrat reaches it first. But the woman has one more trick up her sleeve. Reminiscent of the final gunfight in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, a close-up of the woman’s hand reveals a stapler neatly tucked into her shirt sleeve. The bureaucrat drops his stapler, the woman staples her documents. The bureaucrat, foiled in his attempt to set up requisite roadblocks and ‘red tape’, crumples to his desk, defeated.

What can we infer from this short film about bureaucracy? Some students recognized this as evidence of the psychological and cognitive effects of bureaucracy: one’s professional identity is lost once he has no administrative work to do! Others saw the depersonalization of bureaucracy in this clip. And of course, there’s the hierarchy and rules, procedures and paperwork that characterize bureaucracy.

The hierarchical organization of ‘the office’ and the numerous administrative procedures central to bureaucracy also come through in this familiar clip from Office Space (1999) about TPS reports:

Because bureaucracy is a common feature of university life — and everyday life, more generally — students were quickly able to recognize its features in this clip. The ‘iron cage’ of the increased bureaucratization of social life and human action was easy to see here.

Yet, when I asked them about Arendt’s claims about the links between violence and bureaucracy, they were challenged to think about how bureaucracies, as ‘tyranny without tyrants’ might inspire ‘real’ violence:

the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the students’ rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy. This explains, what at first glance seems so disturbing, that the rebellions in the East demand precisely those freedoms of speech and thought that the young rebels in the West say they despise as irrelevant. Huge party machines have succeeded everywhere to overrule the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact.

Or how it might, in fact, be backed up by the threat of violence, as in this clip from Brazil:

or in David Graeber’s provocative 2006 Malinowski Lecture, in which he writes:

We are not used to thinking of nursing homes or banks or even HMOs as violent institutions—except perhaps in the most abstract and metaphorical sense. But the violence I’m referring to here is not epistemic. It’s quite concrete. All of these are institutions involved in the allocation of resources within a system of property rights regulated and guaranteed by governments in a system that ultimately rests on the threat of force. “Force,” in turn, is just a euphemistic way to refer to violence. All of this is obvious enough. What’s of ethnographic interest, perhaps, is how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life, without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would indeed be summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required. It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical harm.

This all dovetails into a guest lecture by Kirk Johnson, who spoke about his work with the List Project. During that lecture, Kirk talked about his work with USAID during reconstruction efforts in Iraq. In his book, he notes how his work was less about development and more about managing contracts and contractors. He also described his work with The List Project and the various administrative tactics used by the US government to prevent Iraqis who worked alongside US agencies and military (and are now in danger because of that involvement) to receive visas to come to the US.

Right now, we’re still grappling with the relationships between war and bureaucracy, why it matters, and what anthropologists have to say about this relationship. But I do think that we’re off to a good start.

Matt Damon’s children

In this clip from Showtime’s House of Lies, we see a parody of celebrity ‘humanitarianism’ and charity. The critique begins with Damon’s hiring a management consulting firm to cultivate his humanitarian brand. The video draws together all the tropes of celebrity humanitarianism: suffering children; war-torn, dusty African town; members of the clergy protecting the youth. I was most amused/struck by the part of the clip where Damon appears to be administering health care to a wounded person: expertise gained from being the only white, famous person in town, perhaps?