Monday, April 30, 2012

Anthropological Notes 2

In visiting the tribe over an extended period of time one thing that stuck me was the emphasis on a game that when I was a child we called "make believe."  In those days we might pretend we were doctors or police men. The "make believe" I have observed can only be called "I am important."  The truth is that almost no members of the tribe are important except in the context of the game.

For example, thinking I was part of the tribe a book publisher called me. He asked me to collect articles from members of the tribe on a particular subject and, if I did, he would publish them in a book. My name would go on the book as editor. But then he added,  "you really do not have to do anything. Just tell us which articles you want to include and we will get them for you." I was puzzled.  I would have my name on a book -- something highly valued by the tribe- but I actually  would not do anything useful.

This pretending to be important ritual can be observed at annual meetings.  Members of the tribe from all over gather. They give speeches to each other which no one remembers. They seem to take turns giving these speeches. After each one, they clap and then they are viewed as having done something important.But they are only important in their own minds. The game, as best I can tell is that I will act like you are important if you will return the favor. This reciprocity does not carry over to financial matters. For example, there is usually a contest to see who knows the best restaurants in the cities where  these meetings are held. When the bill comes, the members can spend hours calculating who ordered what and what each person should pay.

One prominent example of the "I am important" ritual actually occurs at these dinners when the waiter-person comes to ask what each person would like to eat. Each person has very special needs. Like "water, no ice," no nuts," "dressing on the side," "please substitute peas for the Lima beans," "is the chef unionized," "please place my order in the original Cantonese," "was this plate washed at the appropriate temperature," and so on.  And that is only for the appetizer. The wine ordering ritual is far longer.

The "I am important game" is far more extensive than this. Each member of the tribe does some work teaching and writing but far more work publicizing his or her work. Announcements are made about meaningless efforts, lists are created. Often they measure their importance by the number of article they have published but that are very rarely read.  So, instead of being noted for what was said of importance, the publicity may be "Professor Tom has published 56 articles." This is regarded as better than 35 articles regardless of what the 35 said. Often the articles are based on the talks they gave to each other in return for listening to the talks of others. In fact, these talks and articles are frequently all about one thing but have different titles in order to create the image of importance and higher number. One thing is clear. The tribe has great tolerance for repetition.

I cannot figure out how one knows for sure if he has won the game.

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