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"Savage Minds" - 3 new articles

  1. Around the Web
  2. The Pioneer Age of Internet Video (2005-2009)
  3. Your own private griot
  4. More Recent Articles
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Around the Web

Obama’s Kenyan behavior

  • What’s it called when you ascribe a person’s thoughts and behavior to biological origins? Oh yeah, that’s scientific racism and the Boasians debunked it like 100 years ago. Mayhaps Newt Gingrich is a little slow on the uptake as he was quoted saying, “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Got that? Obama’s difference, his otherness if you will, is best explained by the fact that he’s part Kenyan (biology) and not because of the way he was raised by his white grandparents in Kansas (culture).
  • Gingrich is championing a recent Forbes piece by Dinesh D’Souza who holds that Obama Jr got his “anti-colonial ideology” from the father he met only once.

Anthropology Rocks:

  • My favorite lecture to give in General Anthropology is the Upper Paleolithic because (1) the sudden burst of human creativity in the archaeological record is mysterious which grabs students’ attention and (2) the cave art makes for a great Power Point presentation which students seem to crave from professors, but which I seldom do. You can be sure I’ll be sharing these two links:
  • “Inside Lascaux” is a Time-Life produced slide show of rare and previously unpublished cave art images from that famous cave.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald provides a web video about Aboriginal rock art in northwestern Arnhem Land that documents native encounters with colonizers.

The culture of “Cultural Policy”

  • The blog Cultural Property writes in hopes of altering the way those in power conceive of so-called traditional culture or folklore. Here folklorist Dorry Noyes wrestles with key assumptions she terms “too simple.” In their place she offers “better” evidence based treatments though they are less tidy than the common sense she seeks to critique. For example replacing: “Cultural diversity is a scarce resource, so all traditional culture should be preserved,” with “Cultural invention and differentiation are ongoing, and forgetting is as necessary as remembering for life to go forward… AND the poor lack the freedom of choice possessed by the rich as to maintaining their traditions. This is a problem of inequality, not of cultural difference.”

Amazon Basin shows signs of life

  • Various archaeologists, who do not appear to be working in concert, are developing complementary historical reconstructions of a pre-Columbian Amazonia that features complex societies with massive cities and agriculture. I was not aware that these amount to “controversial” claims, but then I am not an archaeologist. This beautifully written piece comes from Juan Forero, who covers Columbia and Venezuela for the Washington Post.

Virtual girlfriends, real vacations

  • Developing romantic relationships with video-game girlfriends is a popular past time in Japan. Now the software developer behind the best selling sim-dating game is offering gamers a chance to stay immersed in that fantasy world at a vacation resort outside of Tokyo. Simply scan a bar code with your smart phone at select attractions and you can have a bystander take you and your girlfriend’s picture “together.”

“Learning styles”: Threat or menace?

  • A much circulated NYT article about improving study habits reports findings that debunk many popular education theories such as the importance of teaching styles or whether a student is a “visual learner” or “left brained,” etc. Recommendations include alternating study environments rather than always studying in the same place, mixing content rather than focusing on one thing, spacing study sessions, and self-testing.
  • Neuroanthropology has an appreciation for the piece.
  • Just the other day I spent the evening helping my 2nd graders through a homework assignment: writing a letter to George Washington. It took forever! Mostly I think they are rusty, coming off summer vacation they haven’t switched into school mode just yet. However, a significant part of the problem seemed to lie in the fact that they don’t really know what a “letter” is.

The American middle-class — it was fun while it lasted

  • The Great Divergence is a investigative series on and actually quite grounded in scholarly economics. It seeks to uncover the cause to growing income inequality in the U.S. Timothy Noah surveys a diverse field of economic experts and finds, “few of these experts have much idea how to reverse the trend. That’s because almost no one can agree about what’s causing it.” The attached slide show gives a broad overview of piece, making the case for the existence of growing inequality and the explanatory insufficiency of the “usual suspects” such as race and gender inequalities or the political party in power and the tax policies they set. Part Six on the decline of organized labor gives a sense of where Noah is taking this argument.
  • Celebrity liberal Michael Moore wishes everyone “Happy Fuckin’ Labor Day”, especially Rahm Emanuel. “Did you know that back when I was a kid if you had a parent making a union wage, only one parent had to work?! And they were home by 3 or 4pm, 5:30 at the latest! We had dinner together!” Uhm… now that you mention it, that sounds pretty good actually…
  • Timewaster: The Onion usually sticks to parody, but occasionally they serve up satire worthy of Swift. Enjoy!

Garbage In = Garbage Out

  • If I had more time at the moment (it being the start of the semester and all) I would devote an entire blog post to deconstructing this highly amusing yet deeply flawed “statistical” study about personal preferences broken down by race and gender using self-reported data from 526,000 users of a popular online dating service. The results, which are occasionally hilarious and provocative, went viral last week so apologies if you’ve already seen it. I’ll have to be content to let SM readers blast this piece and find the best jokes themselves.

One courageous woman, two men convicted for their beliefs

  • Kudos to the Lebanese editor of an Arab language erotica journal for continuing to publish in the face of death threats and for articulating a congruence between the subjugation of women in Christianity and Islam.
  • Amnesty International calls for the King of Saudi Arabia to commute the death sentences of two men accused of “sorcery”.

Evolution of religion/ Religion as selective pressure

  • Here’s an NPR story on how religion may have been evolutionarily advantageous for the human species. I think this is a valuable undertaking though I’ll admit to being prejudiced against evolutionary psychology, I don’t trust it any farther than I could throw it. Behavioral ecology is one thing, but I’m simply not convinced that “belief” can be reduced to “behavior”. Neither do I see them as equivalent to tacit and explicit culture, nor do I follow any neat relationship between religion and altruism. The role of evolution in contemporary human behavior is a field where anthropology ought to be a leader but it seems psychology carries more of a public voice.
  • Less contentious (for science anyway) is religion as a means by which humans interact with their natural environment. In this report, evolutionary ecologists conducting research in southern Mexico documented a indigenous ritual where locals use a root toxin to stun cave fish for harvest. The ecologists then showed that the population in the cave where the ritual took place were more resistant to the toxin than the same species in caves where the ritual is not practiced.


  • NYT Video presents this short piece on the Malagasy funerary rite, Famadihana, wherein crypts are opened and the corpses of ancestors are carefully lifted out for dancing and celebration.

In memoriam

  • Allen Dale June, 91, was one of the original developers of the Navajo Code Talkers. A much celebrated system of communication that was subsequently used by several hundred Navajos to send thousands of messages in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War.

Seen something around the web that you’d like to share with the Savage Minds community? Email me at mdthomps AT

The Pioneer Age of Internet Video (2005-2009)

There is a touch-screen internet networked television mounted on a wall in a middle class living room. You turn it on with a touch and rows of applications organized as colorful little boxes are revealed. You are familiar with the choices because they are the same as what is displayed on your mobile phone. In this apparent cornucopia of choices are hundreds of apps to click to watch CBS dramas, New York Times video segments, CNET interview programs, Mashable tweetfeeds, and CNN live broadcasts. Or you can rent a movie from Apple’s iTV, Google TV, Amazon, or YouTube Rentals suggested to you based on your shopping preferences as gathered from your GPS ambulations. You want to show your friend a funny video that was recommended to you earlier in the day so you click on the YouTube Partners app and it appears on the screen.

You crave a different meme, something old school, circa around 2009. You could go to the YouTube Classics app, but strangely your favorite video never made it to 100 million views and so wasn’t promoted to YouTube Classics. Your television system is connected to the internet but the public internet browser app is buried in the systems folder on your networked TV. Besides, if you could find the browser app you can’t find a keyboard to type out search terms. You drop the idea of following a personal impulse and go with what you can see through the window of the professionally curated suite of applications.

This description of a limited and safe television viewing experience of the future is meant to evoke a feeling that the limitless content and freedom that we associate with internet video is quickly being truncated by the hardware and software engineers in cahoots with the content app designers to make a much more safe, convenient, and professional internet. This is quite easy to see in the world of internet video—once the land of the most subversive, graphic, and comic content possible—is now being overhauled by professionals producing, curating, optimizing, and streaming ‘quality’ videos to homes on proprietary hardware. Many of us interested in the democratization of media, the absence of conglomerate consolidation, the presence of “generative” digital tools, video activism, and indigenous media should be concerned by these trends. This era will be seen as the historical pioneering era of internet video idealism (2005-2009).

Earlier this month, in re-introducing Apple’s internet connected TV set top box, the iTV, Steve Jobs claimed that people want “Hollywood movies and TV shows…they don’t want amateur hour.” What Jobs is saying is that we are entering a new era of professionalism—gone is the wild Darwinian kingdom of video memes, the meritocracy of the rabble rousers, the open platforms equally prioritizing the talented poor as well as the rich. Jobs has never been one to parrot the ‘democratization of media’ ideal. Never one championing collective design or the wisdom of the crowd (if only to fanatically buy his hardware), Jobs firmly believes in the auteur, the singular virtuosity of the genius designer, engineer, and director to make a professionally superior object of art and function. The upcoming golden age of ‘quality’ professional content will be ruled by Jobs and his ilk at HBO, Pixar, Hulu, LG, and Vizio.

Jobs’ vision is but one example showing that the pioneer age of the free and open culture of internet video is ending. Current TV, from 2005-2008, aired 30% user-generated documentaries and produced a cable television network that modeled democracy. Today they are taking pitches only from top Hollywood TV producers. The YouTube Partner’s program, like the very talented Next New Networks—the talent agents for Obama Girl and Auto-Tune the News—culls the ripest and most viral video producers from YouTube and optimizes them for the attachment of profitable commercials. Once pruned and preened, these YouTube cybercelebrities are promoted on the hottest real estate on the internet, YouTube’s frontpage, making 6-figures for themselves while finally making YouTube profitable.

Subcultural activities going mainstream is nothing new, the radical 60s cable guerilla television crew, TVTV, went from making ironic investigations into the 1972 Republican and Democratic conventions to making regular puff pieces for broadcast. World of Wonder, the queerest television company in Hollywood, has been bringing the sexual and gender underground to mainstream cable television for decades. For examples, see my documentary on World of Wonder.

But it is the first example regarding IPTV—internet-based direct to consumer ‘television’ such as Apple’s iTV—that will bring only the best of internet video to the home that most concerns me. The professional domestication of internet video in the home, I fear, will forever wipe out the memory of the wicked and subversive video memes of the YouTube past. With it will go the very ethos of participatory video culture. My colleagues in the Open Video movement can collectively design the hell out of open video apps, editing systems, protocols, and videos standards but no one using these free and open source video systems will be seen if proprietary IPTV covers both software and hardware, internet and television, in both the home and the office.

The process I am describing can best be articulated as a historical process of professionalization. The wild world of amateur video—its production, promotion, and distribution procedures—is moving from the realm of prototyping, beta-testing, and experimentation to expert production, algorithmic optimization, and alpha release five years after its debut on YouTube and Current TV. This professionalization is a historical result of 5 years of industrial development, individual trial and error, and profit-focused talent agencies and creative thinktanks. It is also a product of the historical convergence of the internet and television hardware, as well as the corporate consolidation of content and software around the idea of the app—a professionally designed hardware/software/content peephole into a small fraction of the internet. More anthropological however is the historical transformation of the subculture into the culture. This has been happening forever and is the engine of popular culture and we shouldn’t be so hip and retro as to bemoan it. But we should be concerned with the loss of that realm of artistic and political potential encoded in the free and open internet. The “golden age” to follow this pioneering phase will be as innovative as the golden age of television as we welcome the equivalent of I Love Lucy, Friends, and Lost and along with it the return to spectatorism, canned laughter, and the proliferation of middle class values.

Your own private griot

[Reposted from the SLA Blog.]

In her now classic 1989 paper on language and political economy, Judith Irvine talked about situations where language doesn’t merely index political and economic relations in the way that accent is linked to class in Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but where speech acts are themselves a form of political and economic economic activity. Her example is that of the Wolof griot “whose traditional profession involves special rhetorical and conversational duties such as persuasive speechmaking on a patron’s behalf, making entertaining conversation, transmitting messagesto the public, and performing the various genres of praise-singing.” She discusses how while not anyone can be a griot — you have to be born into the right caste — it is the “most talented and skillful griots” who “earn high rewards and are sought after by would-be patrons.” Irvine then goes on to discuss not just the verbal skill of the griot, but “cases where a verbal statement is the object of exchange.” It is worth quoting this discussion in full:

Recently there appeared a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine, entitled “Flattery getting someone somewhere” (M. Stevens, 28 July 1986). “You’re looking great, Frank!” says a man in business suit and necktie to another, perhaps older, man with glasses and bow tie. “Thanks, Chuck! Here’s five dollars!” Bow Tie replies, handing over the cash. The joke depends, of course, on the notion that the exchange of compliments for cash should not be done so directly and overtly. We all know that Chuck may indeed flatter Frank with a view to getting a raise, or some other eventual reward; but it is quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment. A compliment should be acknowledged only with a return compliment, or a minimization, or some other verbal “goods.” If it is to be taken as “sincere,” it is specifically excluded from the realm of material payments.

Some cultural systems do not segregate the economy of compliments from the economy of material transactions and profits, however. It is doubtful, for example, that the cartoon would seem funny to many Senegalese. With a few suitable adjustments for local scene, the transfer it depicts is quite ordinary. There is, in fact, a category of persons-the griots-specializing in flattery of certain kinds, among other verbal arts. The income they gain from these activities is immediate and considerable, often amounting to full-time employment for those whose skills include the fancier genres of eulogy.

I remembered this article because something I read made me wonder about the claim that it is “quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment.” It was a piece in the Washington Post by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh entitled “Five myths about prostitution.” The second of these five myths is that “men visit prostitutes for sex.”

Often, they pay them to talk. I’ve been studying high-end sex workers (by which I mean those who earn more than $250 per “session”) in New York, Chicago and Paris for more than a decade, and one of my most startling findings is that many men pay women to not have sex. Well, they pay for sex, but end up chatting or having dinner and never get around to physical contact. Approximately 40 percent of high-end sex worker transactions end up being sex-free. Even at the lower end of the market, about 20 percent of transactions don’t ultimately involve sex.

Figuring out why men pay for sex they don’t have could sustain New York’s therapists for a long time. But the observations of one Big Apple-based sex worker are typical: “Men like it when you listen. . . . I learned this a long time ago. They pay you to listen — and to tell them how great they are.” Indeed, the high-end sex workers I have studied routinely see themselves as acting the part of a counselor or a marriage therapist. They say their job is to feed a man’s need for judgment-free friendship and, at times, to help him repair his broken partnership. Little wonder, then, that so many describe themselves to me as members of the “wellness” industry.

So here we seem to have a situation where Americans do pay to be told how great they are. The difference, of course, is that this activity is illegal, and it is private. While a woman at a Japanese hostess bar may be paid to listen and make complements in a public setting, in the US this activity seems to have been relegated to the private sphere – between the man and his griot.

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