A Day in the (Fictional) Life

The following is the ethnographic translation of the below field notes that you asked for, taken during one of my days of observation here in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland.  It is presented here as requested, incomplete, but I do hope that you find the details as riveting and nuanced as I do.  I also sincerely hope that my conclusions will be enough to justify further monetary support.

rule 1rule 2 rule 3

08:02 AM

I was applauded this morning whilst crossing the street by a group of women dressed in ornate pink and red costumes.  One was wearing a tiara, and I presumed she was the leader and/or of some lesser-ranked royal class.  I was embarrassed to have been a part of their group, and slightly disappointed that I might have too closely become a participant.  When I reached the opposite side of the street, I moved past the women and hid myself behind a tree so as to better view their actions without too destructively intervening.  As I did this, the lower ranked of the two smiled at me with what I can only presume was either a gesture of greeting, or dominance.

The two women were then greeted themeselves by an individual dressed in a dark green coat, long in the sleeves, and that reached down below her knees.  I thought this choice of garment was odd as it was neither raining, nor cloudy.  I have periodically found myself considering the oddity that is the dress habits of these natives, as they tend to adorn themselves in often drab woollen accoutrements based on an assumption (either via lived experience or prophetic divination) about what type of weather might actually occur, rather than for what is actually occurring.

The green woman handed the leader of the pink and red women a paper cup filled with a yellow-tinted libation.

This exchange, as well as the ceremony that followed, is worth noting in detail:

The crowned woman drank first.  She sipped lightly at the libation, then handed the cup to her subordinate, who equally sipped lightly.  They both seemed to have found the contents pleasing as they happily thanked the green woman.  Then, they each drank again in turn.  The crowned woman made an intriguing gesture, tipping the cup toward the green woman, who nodded her head forward in response.  The red and pink women then continued walking, sharing the cup back and forth until it was empty.  I followed, cautiously.  At this point, the subordinate woman crushed the cup in her left (dominant, it seemed) hand and dropped it against the wall of a merchant shop that specialised in a local delicacy the natives affectionately refer to as ‘chippy.’  (It is an acquired taste).  The two women then began to move quicker, laughing to one another.  When I examined the cup I noted the contents to be sweet and slightly chemical, like alcohol.  I tried in earnest not to disturb the cup, as I did not wish to interrupt, and thus become a part of, the ritual.  

Given the age of the two women, the colour of their garments, and their body shapes, I believe an educated hypothesis about this ritual might conclude that this was a type of fertility act.  In fact, from previous observations, I am confident in the assumption that these women were performing a liminal transformation, akin to a removal of oneself into the wilderness, only to return an acknowledged member of the tribe.  As I myself returned to my original position this hypothesis became even more valid as a large group of similarly dressed red and pink women appeared on the opposite end of the street.  I noted in my journal that the green woman excitedly began preparing more libations from a glass bottle with the label scratched off and a box of what looked to be some kind of juice.  As there is indeed much more that I could describe of the interactions and dialogues that occurred once this group of women crossed the street, I will leave here further confident in my impression that I inadvertently discovered a festival devoted entirely to a fertility act.

More on this to follow.


A few notes on the customs that I have witnessed in my time here.  I have broken these into ‘rules,’ because, as you know, it feels easier for me to delineate the imponderabilia of these people in particular categories.

Rule 1: There is always a hill.

Edinburgh is a city of hills.  There is always a hill.  Even when one climbs to the apex of one of the ritually sacred hills (I have counted at least four thus far), there still seems to be a hill to further climb.  I have noted that a number of the visitors who come here to explore the mysterious culture of the Scotspeople take to wearing clothing suitable to such a geographical landscape.  I have counted an immeasurable amount of hiking boots and trousers and jackets to match.  They seem to have all invested in large brim, thin, flopping hats.  I even once saw a man using two walking canes.  Such is the terrain of this environment.

The locals, of course, seem not dissuaded by the hills here.  Even to the point of stubbornness.  I have taken to using many of the transport options available to the native and visitor alike to make my way through the city, but the natives insist on walking.

Interesting point to support this: in the last few years, the tribal elders gathered and financed the construction and instalment of a tram system.  The natives have not taken to using it, to the point of insistence, and even protest at times.  Perhaps this is due, as I have decided, to the fact that it only leads in a single direction, and thus seems rather pointless.  Either way, their familiarity with the hills of this city seems ingrained within their genes.  It is indeed an intriguing aspect to their cultural identity.

Rule 2: Someone is always behind you.

I walk quite often here, making useful observations of the natives and their interactions with each other and the visitors alike.  However, I have found myself, repeatedly, and without fail, being followed.  This does not, of course, mean that I am actually being followed, but that there is always someone walking behind me.

I’ve found this to be such a frequent occurrence that I have named it the ‘Edinburgh phenomenon.’  I will look more into this through the remainder of my research here.

Rule 3: The heaters are always on.

It is no secret that the weather here can be a bit rain-soaked and blustery.  The natives have a number of terms for these weather patterns, ‘dreach’ and ‘haar’ being the most often ones that I have heard thus far.  The latter is a name given to a low and choking fog that rolls in and blankets everything in sight.  The former is difficult to translate.  One of my informants tried to roughly define it as: “the weather is terrible and cold and it is raining, I think I’ll have a lie in today.”

Given this type of weather, the natives tend to always have their heaters on.  They likewise will usually be adorned in woollen garments.  This makes it difficult for an outsider such as myself to acclimate to the sweating.  Even on days when the sun is out and it is warm, without fail, the heaters will be on.  While I have tried to guard myself from too subjectively being influenced by this, it has proven to be the hardest part of my observations.

I am always sweating.


This evening I took a bus to one of the city’s secular sanctuaries.  It is called ‘Usher Hall,’ but I believe the natives pronounce it ‘Oosher Heel.’  I’m not entirely certain, and will look into this more.

On the bus I noticed two oddities.

  1. An elderly woman was obsessively engaged in picking out the blue embroidery from a white towel.  She was using a pair of scissors and cutting it loose, then depositing the blue thread on the floor of the bus.  On closer inspection, I believe it was a hotel towel.
  2. An elderly man came onto the bus, muttering to himself in a native dialect that is difficult to make out, even with my extensive language study.  I’ve been told it’s what is called ‘Leither,’ but have yet to source from where this originates.  He remained standing during the entire bus ride, busying himself by the buses entrance.  I moved seats to better observe him and found that he was removing the discarded bus tickets from out of a red plastic bucket, flattening them in his hands, and then eating them one by one.

At Oosher Heel I sat amongst a few of my informants who had invited me to hear a reading from a fellow American, a humorist named David Sedaris.  They were quite fond of him, and I took this as a compliment based on their views of my own culture.  Overall I felt this experience definitely bonded me with them, and I look forward to the cultural observations I will achieve via this friendship.

During the reading a remarkable realisation came to me that I will transcribe in full:

At one point David Sedaris was telling a story about how he likes to pick up trash in the village in which he lives in England (apparently he is conducting his own research).  His deeds were so welcomed by the natives in his area that he was invited to the Queen’s Palace for lunch.  While the story he told was quite humorous, and while I do not intend to bastardise it here, what stood out to me was the reaction of a number of the natives in the audience.  When Sedaris said ‘the Queen,’ people booed in a critical tone.  I had been warned that these natives were no fans of the Queen of England, but I was not expecting them to be so vocal about it.  It then occurred to me that they were doing more than just booing, they were being supportive of their own queen, whom I had likely observed earlier this morning, the one in the tiara.  This realisation has altered my perception of this morning’s fertility ritual.  I will thusly be re-focusing my research on locating this queen, and will alert you further on my successes. 

Best from the field,

–E.G. Quillen

PS: please ensure the grant proposal goes through, I am indeed sure that I have stumbled upon an essential aspect of this culture and fully intend to further explicate its meaning.

Identity Matters

For the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot about identity in the news, especially concerning the racial identity of Rachel Dolezal, who recently resigned as President of the Spokane, Washington branch of the NAACP after it was revealed that though she had been presenting herself as ‘black,’ she is, in fact, biologically caucasian.  This, accompanied by the excellent response written by my Edinburgh colleague, Chris Duncan, in regard to a Religious Studies Project podcast interview on Race and Religion with Rudy Busto, got me thinking here not just about the differences between how individuals identify themselves and how we identify them in our own ways, but about the scholastic obligations we have in ensuring we lean more toward the former than the latter.

The response to Ms. Dolezal’s ‘transracial’ identity was quite popular via a number of news outlets, some of which seemed confused, or, if nothing else, heavily opinionated about the matter.

Here’s a few examples:




While the story behind her racial identity got picked apart and discussed ad nauseam by a number of media outlets, her side of the story didn’t really appear until she sat down for a brief interview for NBC with Savannah Guthrie.  Here, Ms. Dolezal answers a number of questions, particularly about her identity, justifying how it is that she defines herself as ‘black.’  A few things stand out here that I think are worth isolating:

  • Her use of the term ‘creative non-fiction‘ in response to whether she feels she has been ‘deceptive in her identity,’ and how that has assisted her explanation as to why she identifies as ‘black.’ (0:20-0:59)
  • Her response that “nothing about being white describes who I am,” and the difficulty in defining a word that might describe that, especially as she sees herself as ‘black’ via ‘values’ and ‘lived experience.’ (3:15-3:54)
  • Her ‘physical identifiers’ that make up the ‘construct’ of ‘race’ in response to how she has changed her appearance over the years: hair, skin colour, and eye shape. (7:10-7:54)
  • Her resonation with some of the themes shared between her sense of being ‘transracial’ and Caitlyn Jenner’s ‘transgender’ identity. (9:30-10:02)

Here’s her interview in its entirety:

As well, this conversation was expanded a bit more in a separate interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s The Today Show.  This time, when bluntly asked whether she identifies as an ‘African American,’ her response is: “I Identify as black.”

While her story inspires a great deal of discussion (as it has) about racial identity, as well as the racial, ethnic, and cultural nuances that occur within a context such as the United States, Ms. Dolezal’s identity construction likewise serves as a unique insight into the manner with which we might more objectively approach these sorts of complex categories.

This, I would further argue, gives us an equally unique opportunity.  Because her story has become somewhat controversial, and because the way in which she identifies herself might be perceived by some as offensive or insensitive, it gives us the chance to remind ourselves not only of our responsibility in examining and presenting data such as this in an unbiased manner, it also provides us with a sample in which to test ourselves on how that is done.

That is, if we were to translate her story as ‘data,’ and treat her as a subject of inquiry, regardless of what that story tells us, we are required to approach and present it entirely void of our opinion on the matter.  In this way, her identity construction, as well as the language she uses in the process within her unique cultural boundaries, acts as a testimony that we might use in order to interpret her sense of self or ‘selfhood.’  Then, by observing, recording, and even re-writing her story for the benefit of an empirical research agenda, and by placing that story into the larger narrative of her contextual surroundings, we would be able to further develop a sense of appreciative knowledge about a particular aspect of American racial identity in the early twenty-first century.  As well, we could even take this information and measure it against a number of comparative sources, such as the historical background of racial development, inequality, and progression in the United States, giving us a larger chronological, and thus culturally-nuanced, perspective on the way that type of identity has developed from then to now.

In another way, the comparison she makes between her own story and that of Caitlyn Jenner also serves as an important reminder, especially about the simple, yet also precarious, role that comparison plays in these sorts of analyses.  While her sense of commonality or resonance with Caitlyn Jenner’s story is an example of her internal construction of self developing in relationship to an individual with whom she might perceive as belonging to a similar identity group, from an external position (like an anthropological or scholastic manner) this sort of comparison is neither clear, nor usually fair to make.  This has, in fact, been pointed out already (albeit, in a very different way), such as by Zeba Blay for The Huffington Post.  What’s more, this is no different than comparing like things because they look similar, such as religious identities that rest under the same broad canopy (monotheism) but that have different cultural or geographical origins (Christianity, Judaism, Islam).  For a clearer example of this, see J. Z. Smith’s “In Comparison a Magic Dwells” in his (1982) Imagining Religion.

That is to say, though Ms. Dolezal and Ms. Jenner equally share an identity that they have, individually, constructed in contradiction to their biological and genetic makeup, our perception of them should remain relative to their usage, rather than to what might be ‘expected’ of these sorts of identifiers.

Lastly, while an objective perspective on this subject might appear similar, though still somewhat different to, Ms. Dolezal’s notion of ‘race’ as a constructed or fluid ideology, in that the lack of an opinion might be translated as a type of relativism, it is also something that exists merely as a methodological constraint.

That is, as a means of analysing, recording, translating, and representing a cultural snapshot within the context of a distinct time and place, our perception of Ms. dolezal’s identity as data does not mean that we are not permitted to have an opinion.  Rather, it simply means that our use and treatment of this data must be made in a manner void of such an opinion in order to “prevent subjective views from coloring objective facts” (Geertz, Works and Lives, 9).  This is all that more important because it is our responsibility, in this capacity, to ensure our subjects have the opportunity to ‘speak for themselves.’

Said another way: identity matters.

It matters to the individuals identifying themselves, because not only does it represent how they see themselves, it establishes a sense of self that we might infect or damage via our labelling or defining them.

Thus, while to some Ms. Dolezal might seem deranged or insensitive, like a charlatan racially identifying herself in a way that might benefit her financially, or as someone drastically ignorant about, or maliciously knowledgable of, the insult her identity might inflict at this time in history, to an individual researching her as data, this does not matter.  Even if she constructs that identity via ‘creative non-fiction,’ it is not our place to state otherwise because, in simple terms, it is not something that belongs to us, regardless of our feeling of ownership.


To address any accusations that I myself did not provide an opinion here, this is my response:

Issues of racial identity are likely to arise within nations (such as the US) wherein the ethnic and racial identities of the citizens that make up that nation’s culture come from a myriad of different origins.  In response to this, comedians have attempted to address this in an equal number of ways.  As I perceive it, perhaps the three best, if not most memorable, are the links below.  I place them here as a supplement to my own opinion, a translation, if you will, of a heavily serious topic, textually transformed into a comedic response.


Bully for Free Speech

Now that we’ve reached the ides of June, commencement ceremonies are in full swing.  Not only is this a romantic time for students finally untethered from their foster mother, the university, it’s also a great time for notable individuals to give commencement addresses.

While I’ve never attended one of my own graduation ceremonies, I do have fond memories of my brother’s when he graduated from USC.  The commencement address was given by Michael Eisner, who was at that time the Chief Executive of the Walt Disney Company.  He talked about email.  For about 45 minutes.

For many famous or successful people, the opportunity to give a commencement address is also the opportunity to speak about something important to them, something they feel passionate about, in the form of ‘advice’ for the students awaiting their diplomas.  This is based, I can only assume, on the idea that a commencement address is the final word these students will hear at this liminal stage in their lives, one last lesson for them to take to heart before passing through that threshold into the ‘real world.’

Back in May, Ian McEwan, for whom I I have had the great pleasure of obsessing over for the last four years (my PhD Thesis uses his work), gave a commencement address at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  He was also awarded an honorary doctorate for his incredible body of work.  For those interested, here is a video of his speech:

As well, here is a link to a transcription of that speech, provided by Time magazine:


The content, ‘thesis’ even, of his address was the importance not only of free speech as a human right, but of our need to support and defend it, especially against those who wish to hinder, or even restrict it.

“Let’s begin on a positive note,” he begins, followed by:

[T]here is likely more free speech, free thought, free enquiry on earth now than at any previous moment in recorded history (even taking into account the golden age of the so-called ‘pagan’ philosophers). And you’ve come of age in a country where the enshrinement of free speech in the First Amendment is not an empty phrase, as it is in many constitutions, but a living reality.

However, he then turns to the more harsh and ‘negative’ reality which he sees as threatening the ‘life-blood,’ the ‘essential condition’ of the liberal education they have all just received:

But free speech was, it is and always will be, under attack – from the political right, the left, the centre. It will come from under your feet, from the extremes of religion as well as from unreligious ideologies. It’s never convenient, especially for entrenched power, to have a lot of free speech flying around.

He then makes a number of sincere, and sometimes accurate, arguments about the importance, even necessity of free speech:

It’s worth remembering this: freedom of expression sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy. Without free speech, democracy is a sham. Every freedom we possess or wish to possess (of habeas corpus and due process, of universal franchise and of assembly, union representation, sexual equality, of sexual preference, of the rights of children, of animals – the list goes on) has had to be freely thought and talked and written into existence. No single individual can generate these rights alone. The process is cumulative.

However, and this is where I find myself disagreeing with his argument, his speech soon veers into a personal aside, an example that represents his disappointment in seeing certain individuals who have, in their active disaffections, come to challenge free speech by means of not supporting the use of it by others.  This example stems from his disappointment in a number of American writers who publicly disassociated themselves from a PEN gala in honour of the murdered journalists of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.  To further underscore his argument, he refers back to a quote which, he admits, is likely incorrectly assigned to Voltaire (‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’):

American PEN exists to defend and promote free speech. What a disappointment that so many American authors could not stand with courageous fellow writers and artists at a time of tragedy. The magazine has been scathing about racism. It’s also scathing about organised religion and politicians and it might not be to your taste – but that’s when you should remember your Voltaire.    

While the horrific and disgusting terrorist attack on the writers of Charlie Hebdo is inexcusable, I find myself thinking that his argument here is in many ways myopically misguided.  He states, shortly after the previous quote:

There’s a phenomenon in intellectual life that I call bi-polar thinking. Let’s not side with Charlie Hebdo because it might seem as if we’re endorsing George Bush’s ‘war on terror’. This is a suffocating form of intellectual tribalism and a poor way of thinking for yourself. As a German novelist friend wrote to me in anguish about the PEN affair -“It’s the Seventies again: Let’s not support the Russian dissidents, because it would get “applause from the wrong side.” That terrible phrase.

As I will argue in my conclusive statements below, I do not (for the most part) agree that the reason behind those writers ‘disassociating’ themselves from the PEN gala was a decision made by ‘fear’ or ‘apprehension’ in being affiliated with, and thus in support of, Bush’s ‘war on terror.’ Rather, and as I will reveal below, I think this arises from something very different.  Likewise, while I do agree that all religious beliefs are ‘worthy of respect,’ at least in the academic use of empathetic methodological agnosticism, I especially find myself disagreeing with his sentiment that ‘free speech’ is somehow inextricably linked with ‘criticism’ or ‘mockery:’

Islam is worthy of respect, as indeed is atheism. We want respect flowing in all directions. But religion and atheism, and all thought systems, all grand claims to truth, must be open to criticism, satire, even, sometimes, mockery.

What I think he has confused here is the idea that ‘criticism,’ in the sense of examination and open and free discussion, particularly related to political, social, and cultural restrictions and amendments concerning ethics, is somehow the same thing as ‘mockery.’  These are not the same thing, or, if nothing else, because of my objective lens, I do not see these as the same thing.  One I see as the mythological hope of the First Amendment: the idea that all religious individuals are free to exercise their beliefs in a manner that isn’t harmful, dangerous, or threatening to others.  The other I see as a type of bullying: knowingly harassing, inciting, or disrespecting an individual whose beliefs do not match your own, and thus appear foreign, odd, or worthy of insult.

This differentiation, for the sake of simplicity, is the thesis of this post, and the focus of the following discussion.

However, and for pragmatic reasons, my argument against McEwan’s defence of this type of ‘free speech’ is in need of some background data, which I will break into three sections: what I mean by ‘bully,’ a description of a story by McEwan about bullying, and a final argument about empathy using McEwan’s own description.


To better elucidate my use of the term ‘bullying,’ I think it is terribly important to first understand what I mean by the term ‘bully.’  Let’s first look at a lexical example.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term in two ways.  First, as a noun:

A person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker: he is a ranting, domineering bully.

Synonyms for this definition include: persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, tormentor, brow-beater, intimidator, coercer, subjugator, scourge, tough, heavy, bully boy, ruffian, thug, and attack dog.

Second, it is defined as a verb:

Use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force them to do something: a local man was bullied into helping them.

Synonyms for this definition include: coerce, pressure, pressurize, bring pressure to bear on, use pressure on, put pressure on, constrain, lean on, press, push, force, compel, oblige, put under an obligation, hound, harass, nag, harry, badger, goad, prod, pester, brow-beat, brainwash, bludgeon, persuade, prevail on, work on, act on, influence, intimidate, dragoon, twist someone’s arm, and strong-arm.

For the purposes of my usage herein, I will stipulate the term to mean:

someone who uses force, or the threat of force, either in a manner meant to terrorise, or control, another individual. 

A ‘bully,’ then, is someone who knowingly insults, incites, or threatens another.  This stipulation will be important later.  For now, however, I think it will help if we briefly turn to a discussion of a story, a sort of fairy tale, about bullying, and the healing power of empathy.

The Bully

In 1994, McEwan published a short little novella called The Daydreamer.  Consisting of eight vignettes (chapters) about the early life of a young boy, Peter Fortune, The Daydreamer is, as McEwan describes in the novella’s preface: “a book for adults about a child in a language that children could understand” (9).  In each of these chapters Peter learns something new about himself, so that like young Briony Tallis coming to terms with her own existence at the start of his renowned novel Atonement, these chapters become singular moments of self-discovery, blended into a story about a young boy’s coming-of-age.  While these fluctuate between fantastical and realistic physical and emotional alterations, one story stands out for my intentions here.

“The Bully” tells the story of Peter’s interaction with a fellow classmate, Barry Tamerlane, who is known for terrorising the students at their school.  While the story reflects much of the metaphorical nuance that McEwan is so good at, such as the notion that the bully, as well as Peter’s ability to confront and defeat him with nothing more than his logic, is emulative of an almost Atheistic enlightenment about God’s existence through our own creation, his description of this interaction is quite poignant for my argument herein.

In the beginning, the bully is described as such:

He didn’t look like a bully.  He wasn’t scruff, his face wasn’t ugly, he didn’t have a frightening leer, or scabs on his knuckles and he didn’t carry dangerous weapons.  He wasn’t particularly big.  Nor was he one of those small, wiry, bony types who can turn out to be vicious fighters.  At home he wasn’t smacked like many bullies are, and nor was he spoiled.  His parents were kind but firm, and quite unsuspecting.  His voice wasn’t loud or hoarse, his eyes weren’t odd and small and he wasn’t even very stupid.  In fact, he was rather round and soft, though not quite a fatty, with glasses, and a spongy pink face, and a silver brace on his teeth.  He often wore a sad and helpless look which appealed to some grown-ups and was useful when he had to talk himself out of trouble. (74-75)  

With such an innocuous description, we might wonder, as Peter does, what would make Barry a bully?  Peter decides that there are two reasons for this:

  1. “The first was that he seemed to be able to move in the quickest way between wanting something and having it.” (75)
  2. “The second reason for Tamerlane’s success was that everyone was afraid of him.” (75)

However, he also adds: “No one quite knew why.” (75)

At this point in the story, and in a random turn of ‘grown-up logic,’ Peter is invited to, and attends, Barry’s eleventh birthday party.  This experience shocks him as he finds no trace of the ‘bully’ in Barry within his home environment.  In fact, he is polite, and friendly, and refers to his guests as ‘friends.’  He laughs, and plays, and is genuinely polite.  Peter, deciding to investigate, finds Barry’s room to be much like his own: “There were books all over the place, a train set on the floor, an old teddy on the bed wedged against a pillow, a chemistry set, a computer game.” (77)

So, he concludes, Barry lives a ‘double-life.’  At home, he is a regular boy, much like himself.  Then, on the way to school each morning, he transforms into ‘the bully.’  This thinking sends Peter into a long daydream in which he begins to consider his own existence, particularly after overhearing two girls debate whether or not ‘everything’ in the wider existence is really a dream.  If, he wonders, everything is a dream, then he is the dreamer, and everything is thus his own invention.  In this same way, he is the creator of all life, meaning likewise that as everything is a dream, then ‘dying’ would merely be the moment one wakes up.

As he’s further considering this, one day alone on the playground, the bully re-enters his life, demanding the apple that he is holding.  Soon, a crowd forms.  All the other children surround the two as the bully threatens Peter with a beating if he does not relinquish the apple.  However, Peter does not hand it over.  Rather, he amends his philosophical hypothesis about the world existing as his own dream by adding into it a theory about Barry’s ability to suddenly become a bully:

What made pink plump Barry so powerful?  Immediately, from out of nowhere, Peter had the answer.  It’s obvious, he thought.  We do.  We’ve dreamed him up as the school bully.  He’s no stronger than any of us.  We’ve dreamed up his power and his strength.  We’ve made him into what he is.  When he goes home no one believes in him as a bully and he just becomes himself. (84)

Then, in response to Barry’s final threat, and in a manner emulative of Genesis 3:6, Peter puts his theory into practice:

In reply, Peter raised the apple to his mouth and took an enormous bite.  ‘You know what,’ he said slowly, through his mouthful.  ‘I don’t believe you.  In fact, I’ll tell you something for nothing.  I don’t even believe you exist.’ 

This revelation works like a tonic, inspiring within Peter an almost sinister justification for the insults he soon directs at Barry.  He calls him a ‘fat little pink jelly with metal teeth,’ he reveals his ‘ordinary nature,’ tells the gathering crowd about his ‘teddy’ tucked up in his bed.

Barry begins to cry.  The crowd begins to loudly taunt him.  His crying becomes sobbing, and the crowd falls silent.  Barry sobs into his hands, defeated, the bully now gone.

Later, after the sense of his accomplishment begins to subside, Peter begins to regret his actions:

He had mocked Barry for being fat and having a brace and a teddy and for helping his mum.  He had wanted to defend himself and teach Barry a lesson, but he ended up making him an object of scorn and contempt for the whole school.  His words had hurt far more than a straight punch to the nose.  He had crushed Barry.  Who was the bully now? (88-89)

In an effort to reconcile their relationship, while at the same time pacify his guilt, Peter offers an olive branch in the shape of a note that reads: “Do you want to play soccer?  PS.  I’ve got a teddy too and I have to help with the dishes.” (89)  The two become friends, and Peter, after empathising with his enemy, comes to realise his own faults as a bully, and the shocking ease and simplicity there is in taunting and criticising others.

Only Love and Then Oblivion

On 15 September, 2001, The Guardian published an article by McEwan entitled: “Only Love and Then Oblivion.”

As a direct response to his feeling the horrid sense of loss and tragedy after witnessing (albeit, like so many of us, on his television) the events that unfolded as the World Trade Center came melting to the ground, this short article is about love, and empathy, and last words.  It is about the emotional bereavement felt at watching such a terrible event unfold.

As well, and in many ways mostly, it is about his own philosophical perspective on morality.

This stems, in this context, from an empathetic feeling of connectivity, of feeling in some way a part of this event, as those most victimised by this tragedy were ‘people like us:’

[…] we remember what we have seen, and we daydream helplessly. Lately, most of us have inhabited the space between the terrible actuality and these daydreams. Waking before dawn, going about our business during the day, we fantasize ourselves into the events. What if it was me?

This, he describes, is the inherent meaning of empathy:

This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion: you are under the bedclothes, unable to sleep, and you are crouching in the brushed-steel lavatory at the rear of the plane, whispering a final message to your loved one. There is only that one thing to say, and you say it. All else is pointless. You have very little time before some holy fool, who believes in his place in eternity, kicks in the door, slaps your head and orders you back to your seat. 23C. Here is your seat belt. There is the magazine you were reading before it all began.

Then, empathy becomes morality via the fact that, as he sees it, no person capable of feeling another’s emotions, or seeing the world through their eyes, would be able to, in any capacity, inflict harm on that person:

If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed. It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

In a final indictment, he solidifies this notion:

The hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith, and dehumanising hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of the imagination. As for their victims in the planes and in the towers, in their terror they would not have felt it at the time, but those snatched and anguished assertions of love were their defiance.

Empathy is essential to his sense of morality here, the backbone of his argument that the terrorists on that fateful day had somehow lost the ability to feel what another person felt, to imagine what it might be like to be sitting in their seat, leaving messages for their loved ones, or praying to their own gods.


McEwan’s argument that free speech is a universal right in need of defence and support is indeed appropriate and commendable.

His argument that individuals disassociating with those whose usage they might not agree with is somehow a threat to that right, is not.

This is, I would argue, most apparent in his notion of ‘bi-polar’ thinking.  While maybe the individuals who did not participate, or excused themselves from the PEN gala, did so because they did not want to somehow be associated with Bush’s ‘war on terror,’ I think there is a sincere lack of empathy within this idea.  Perhaps, we might consider, they were doing so not out of fear of supporting someone else’s agenda, but because they simply did not want to associate themselves with a type of bullying.  Perhaps their reasoning for not standing with Charlie wasn’t about a fear of retribution, or of supporting Bush’s campaign against terror.  Perhaps it was merely a decision not to stand with someone responding to a bully by bullying back.

In my own personal aside, I’ve never quite understood the reason for doing an act that one knowingly will offend another.  Sure, this is free speech, but is it the best use of free speech?  For instance, does protesting a soldier’s funeral with signs reading, ‘God Hates Fags,’ really convey a message we all want to stand behind?  This is free speech, after all, and we would likely agree with the right to express such a message, regardless of our disagreeing with the sentiment behind it.  This is especially the case with this example as the Westboro Baptist church is, legally, representing the First Amendment by speaking un-prohibited.  The Supreme Court case Snyder vs. Phelps affirmed this in 2011.

Yet, I might also concede that this is an inaccurate and unfair association in its own way.  The publications of Charlie Hebdo and the protestations of the Westboro Baptist Church are in no way related, and I would never simply lump them together as such.  However, what cannot be separated here is their equally shared position on free speech, particularly when it is based on statements which convey their central ideals.  Because this is free speech granted by judicial law, and upheld by the Constitution, both should be equally defended.  In this same way, as well, if we were to employ McEwan’s own notion of empathy, we would further come to realise that standing with Charlie would, via his promotion of free speech, be the same as standing with the Westboro Baptist Church.

How, then, does this relate to bullying?  Depending on whose side you stand on, any sort of free speech that comes across as criticism or mockery brings with it a sense of bullying.  That is, while due to our liberal educations we might all agree that we need to support, defend, fight for, and eternally use free speech, we also need to recognise how what we say freely might be perceived by others.  In this way, we might also consider if offending another’s religion is free speech or free bullying?  Is the critical mockery of another’s sacred beliefs something that benefits all of us, or just certain individuals who’s own beliefs centre around the idea that believing in something clearly disprovable, something that fetters scientific, political, and cultural advancement, something that breeds hatred and racism and violence against innocent people, is also something deplorable, backward, and harmful to mankind?  In the opposite direction, then, is an attempt at censoring that, or silencing it in any way, an act of free speech or an act of bullying back?

There are clear dichotomies at work here.  Like rather obvious stances of ‘your side against mine,’ these lead to stalemates and debates about who is better supporting whose free speech.  This, I would say, is central to McEwan’s argument in the commencement address above.  Which seems rather odd.  He clearly understands humanity’s ability to understand the perspectives of other people.  Not only does his empathy-as-morality support this, but so does his description of Peter’s realisation that he himself has become the bully in his own self-defence.  Empathy is something that not only comes through in his work, it also seems inexplicably attached to his sense of ethics.  Yet, with his statements in the commencement address above, it seems he has either forgotten this, or is revealing the fact that his empathy is selective.

This, I would lastly argue, is where the benefit of an objective lens comes into play.

Because I might methodologically approach these same examples with an objective sense of empathy, it’s arguable to conclude that just as much as we might collectively agree that any sort of terrorist act is an act of bullying, from the other end, we might also see how the critical mockery presented in Charlie Hebdo‘s publications is a similar type of bullying.  Given our ability to ‘imagine ourselves into the thoughts and feelings’ of others, we can, if nothing else, at least come to an intellectual or philosophical understanding about why each side believes and acts the way it does, especially when it comes to their uses of ‘free speech.’  In this way, we are at least able to free ourselves from the biased position of believing our free speech is better, or if nothing else, more ‘free’ than another’s.

Finally, I would like to conclude here that this does not mean that empathising with a terrorist who murders writers and cartoonists because they are offended by their critical mockery is in some way permissible, nor is this the same as saying, ‘they deserved it.’  Rather, this is meant as a critical assessment of empathy, and the skewed sense of it I see in McEwan’s defence of free speech.  If we are to defend that right, and if we are required to empathise with others who might bully us into refraining from speaking freely, or who wish to silence our voices entirely, perhaps the best way to do that wouldn’t be a further criticism of those whose own free speech we might not like (such as those who disassociate with a group that appears to be bullying back).  For this reason, perhaps my larger argument here is really just a defence of McEwan’s fictional philosophy, rather than what he expresses in ‘real-life.’

As such, I think that the McEwan who gave the commencement address at Dickinson college could learn a thing or two from the lessons learned by Peter Fortune.

In a somewhat shameless plug, I’d like to point out that the International Society for Heresy Studies recently published its second newsletter, Excommunicated, and much of that deals with, and discusses, Charlie Hebdo.  The individuals involved with the ISHS, and the editors of the newsletter especially, are excellent scholars and wonderful people.  It is definitely worth a read:

Excommunicated, Vol. 1, No. 2. 2015.

The Malaise.

I’ve been asked in recent weeks what my life is like now that I’ve submitted the Thesis.  I myself asked this very question of colleagues and friends as they too entered the stage between submission and the impending viva.  One answer that seems to always come up, and one in which I, again, have agreed with, is that my life is now defined by an odd sense of ‘malaise.’  While others might not agree with my wording here, I think this term perfectly sums up this stage for me.

Here’s why.

First, the term’s lexical definition, the definition you might find in a dictionary, seems to fit this stage quite nicely:

1 :  an indefinite feeling of debility or lack of health often indicative of or accompanying the onset of an illness
:  a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being <a malaise of cynicism and despair

Spending years obsessed with writing a long paper takes it’s toll on a person.  That’s years of feeling guilty for ‘taking the afternoon off,’ or, as a good friend was once advised to do, ‘take the full weekend.’  That’s years of thinking about the weakness at the end of chapter three, how the conclusion needs to be a bit more nuanced, how you should ‘unpack’ your term usage throughout.  That’s years of feeling like everything you write is terrible, that your ideas are too simplistic, that you aren’t saying anything truly unique or different.  Then, finally, there’s that feeling that someone, somewhere, will point out how you didn’t read that one obscure text related to your subject, and, of course, that person will be one of your examiners.

This sort of life is a disease in itself, so the malaise that follows is very much a side-effect of replacing these symptoms with those associated with the equally obsessive curiosity about how what you have written is being read.  This is a very special kind of malaise, like a bizarre liminal stage, just this side of the threshold that defines us as ‘finished.’  Which also means, it is a different sort of stage than that which defines the post-viva mindset.  This, again, is why I think this term is perfect.  The viva is like the impending ‘illness,’ so that the malaise felt at this stage is like the ‘lack of health’ indicative of the onset of that illness.

Second, because other people have used this phrase to point out (even metaphorically) similar issues, my usage seems like a good comparative adaption.

Of those ‘other individuals,’ Jimmy Carter is perhaps the most memorable person associated with ‘malaise.’  Thirty-six years ago this week, and in regard to the looming energy crisis, he took to the airwaves with his ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech.  In this address, he pointed out and discussed what he referred to as a “fundamental threat to American democracy,” an erosion of the nation’s confidence in itself:

I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

He went on to describe what he felt were the precursors to this crisis: the assassinations of President Kennedy, his bother Bobby, and Martin Luther King, Jr; the violence and defeat in Vietnam; the distrusting results of the Watergate scandal; and the decreased value of the American dollar during a long and arduous inflation.  He described much of this as symptomatic of “paralysis and stagnation and drift.”

Here’s a video of the speech, for those interested:


This address became known as the ‘malaise speech,’ a critical association because it eventually came to negatively effect his presidency, ultimately leading to his re-election loss in 1980.  Moreover, the term was associated with what he said because, as many critics argued, it merely pointed out Carter’s own criticism of the American people’s mood, his notion of a ‘crisis’ based on his own perception of the despair, ill-feeling, and cynicism emanating from the nation’s public.

While there is much to debate here about Carter’s language use and how it influenced, and was influenced by, the discourse of the American public at this time in history, the terminology is still quite poignant, especially in its association with the ‘crisis’ we might feel in our post-submission confidence.  Which leads me back to my own usage.

To conclude, the malaise that I associate here with the post-submission mindset is in its own way indicative of a ‘crisis,’ not only in our confidence of what it is we have written, but in the loss of the obsession that is writing a thesis.  It is a malaise defined by this double loss, a horrific perfect storm bolstered by a separation from that which has defined us for years, and the ultimate concern that the typo on page 137 will be the deciding factor in our inevitable failure.

So, in answer to the question, ‘what is life like after the submission,’ perhaps the best response is: not much, emotionally at least.  Which is also why I felt it might be useful to write about this malaise, not only for myself, but for others who might have equally experienced this same sort of emotional tempest.  That, and because the malaise has taken quite a strong hold on my current perception of the world, and created for me a distinct crisis of confidence in my own work, I really had no idea what to write about this week.

Fictional Anthropology: Making Sense of Observation by Looking through an Imaginary Lens

On a number of occasions, a particular topic of discussion comes up in my little circle of confidants.  More often than not, this discussion either comes out of, or leads into, further discussions about the difficulty or frustration we might collectively feel when trying to accommodate the important methods and theories required of an objective study of another’s culture, with wanting to ensure we somehow do this in a way that seems ‘sexy.’  Not only is this related to the ‘marketing‘ needed to ‘sell’ what we do, it usually results in the description of what I have periodically referred to as ‘dream courses.’

It’s likely we’ve all heard of these.  The course on The Simpsons and Philosophy.  The course on Learning from Youtube.  The course on Family and Social Roles in Soap Operas.  The course that links the social and the anthropological in internet pornography.  The course on the history and myth underscoring Zombie films.

A ‘dream course’ perfectly balances the need and the want, something that not only bolsters interest and attendance (which equally makes the instructor that much more valuable to the University), but that also presents the material being studied in a manner that aesthetically pleases both student and instructor.

The following is the story of the genesis of such a dream course.

It was raining, and we had five hours until our flight.

We turned down another charming alley, another cobble-lined street flanked by tall, gabled buildings.  Typical of this part of Amsterdam.  We didn’t want to go to a bar, nor were we very hungry.  Stepping carefully out into a main road we turned right and ducked under an alcove at the entrance of a Pathé movie theatre.  Out of curiosity, I checked the marquee.  It was 2:25 in the afternoon and “Mad Max: Fury Road” began at 2:30.  We’d already seen it, in 2D, because neither of us like 3D films.  It’s the glasses.  The 2:30 viewing, however, was in 3D.  With the rain, and how tired we were, and the fact that we had a few hours to kill, our choice to ‘see what all the 3D hype was about’ was pretty much decided for us.

To say that this film is entertaining is a bit of an understatement.  Even though I know a few people who didn’t really like it, and a few others who believe it to be just another action film, I would argue that it is impeccably designed, and not just as an action film.

Rather, I think its ability to provide an insight into a particular culture (even though it isn’t ‘real’) void of the stereotypical use of exposition we might find muddling the plot of similar films in this genre, is enough to warrant it the ‘masterpiece’ status many critics have given it.  That being said, as a useful piece of data, I also think it is perfect for an introduction to the ‘doing’ of anthropology.

Let me explain this a bit more.

My intention here is not to anthropologically decipher the culture within the film, even though we might spend a great deal of time (all of it fun, of course) making sense of it; such as the origins of the religious beliefs and practices of the ‘war boys,’ their affection and reverence to ‘Immortan Joe’ as a Bodhisattva-like guide to the highways of Valhalla, or the economic system constructed between the Citadel (water, milk, plants, babies), Gastown (gasoline/guzzaline), and the Bullet Farm (munitions).  Rather, I think this film is ideal for teaching anthropological neophytes about how we might ‘do’ anthropology.

To begin, here is a useful segment of an article in the Los Angeles Times about the film’s Director, George Miller’s, take on the way he wanted his post-apocalpytic world to be constructed:

“In games, movies and rock videos the post-apocalyptic world tends to look very junkyard-y,” he said. “I realized by observing the world that in many ways that’s not how we behave. You can go to the poorest township in Africa and see them take wire or a Coke can and fashion it into beautiful toys. As I often say, Paleolithic man with almost nothing made those extraordinary cave paintings.”

While on the surface “Fury Road” is just one long car case, Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris developed detailed back stories for its various tribal subcultures. Guided by that fictional anthropology, production designer Gibson — who had earlier worked with Miller on the children’s film “Babe: Pig in the City” — set about designing Immortan Joe’s forbidding mountain fortress, the Citadel, along with a fearsome armada of heavily-armed cars and trucks.  (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-mad-max-production-20150516-story.html#page=1)

The author (Josh Rottenberg) of this article’s use of ‘fictional anthropology’ should not be overlooked here.  In fact, as the plot of the film was structured entirely around a chase sequence, the use of expository information would likely heavily distract from our perceiving this world in a manner similar to an anthropologist’s observations.  Here’s another article where Miller’s lack of exposition is referred to in this exact way:

Although the Max films were never long on expository chit-chat–in “The Road Warrior,” Gibson had less than a dozen lines of dialogue–with “Fury Road,” Miller envisioned taking an even bolder leap into the realm of pure action cinema. Whereas most big-budget franchise movies labor exhaustively to establish the mythologies and ground rules of their fantasy realms, “Fury Road” would effectively unfold as one continuous chase sequence, dropping viewers into the thick of things, and only gradually explaining itself as it went along.  Some details–like the backstories of the Max and Furiosa characters, and the exact nature of how the world ended–would remain intentionally vague, to be expanded upon in future “Max” adventures.  The goal, Miller says, was to give the viewer the sensation of being anthropologists confronted with some strange nomadic culture.  “You wouldn’t understand initially what was going on, but you would never doubt the authenticity of, say, a native people’ s behaviour,” he says.  “That’s what we’re striving for.” (http://feature.variety.com/mad-max/#/content/article)

It is this author’s (Scott Foundas) reference here that I think speaks directly to my usage of the film, the fact that, though we as viewers might not “understand initially what was going on,” we would essentially trust in the authenticity of what we were viewing.  This, said otherwise, is the goal of doing anthropology.

The anthropologist’s job is to merely observe another’s culture, and as we know, this means there isn’t always a narrator or secondary individual there to explain to us what is going on.  Even as much as life is like a novel, and thus made entirely of discursive stories.  This is especially the case with Malinowski’s more functionalist style where the anthropologist is thrust into another world, and is thus an obvious outsider living amongst his or her subjects, their intention being the understanding of the ‘imponderabilia’ of that culture: the everyday actions, routines, rituals, dialogues, and an assortment of otherwise mundane, day-to-day details that make up the entirety of a person’s cultural existence.  In this way, the anthropologist is indeed an observer, viewing their subject’s world through a lens unfiltered by exposition.

When we watch “Mad Max: Fury Road,” we are doing just that.  The film’s design makes it ideal for this sort of introduction.  While Max’s opening monologue gives us a bit of an expository insight about his ‘madness,’ and though we are also given a few hints at the world’s demise via nuclear fallout, and the number of wars fought over oil and water, we are almost literally ‘dropped in’ to this world.  Like Max running frantically through the caverns of the Citadel, only to burst through a door and find himself at the top of a massive rock structure looking out over a foreign culture below, we too are experiencing what he experiences.  Likewise, we are not told who Immortan Joe is, nor anything about his two sons, his control over the water, his imprisonment and use of ‘prized breeders,’ why he has a ‘war machine,’ why he is trading with Gastown and the Bullet Farm, why his ‘war boys’ pray to him, why they chant ‘V8,’ why they are all ill with what is likely Leukaemia, why they believe they live half-lives and are thus ‘awaited’ in Valhalla upon their glorious deaths, or why they ‘chrome’ their mouths with silver spray paint when they are about to die.  None of this is explained, yet it all makes perfect sense.

From beginning to end, we understand the ‘world’ of “Mad Max” merely by viewing it.  The language used throughout becomes translatable.  We come to understand the political world, the economic infrastructure, the roles played by men and women.  The characters’ hand gestures, their ultimate concerns, their religious system: all of this makes sense by the end credits.  Where we begin with little to no knowledge about the anthropology of this world, by the end we are almost experts.

What this also provides for us is a methodological awareness.  Here’s a handy comparison.

For his own intentions, Malinowski plotted out three ‘headings’ of the anthropologist’s observations:

[F]irst of all, naturally, the student must possess real scientific aims, and know the values and criteria of modern ethnography. Secondly, he ought to put himself in good conditions of work, that is, in the main, to live without other white men, right among the natives. Finally, he has to apply a number of special methods of collecting, manipulating and fixing his evidence.” (Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (London: Routledge, 1922), 5.)

The third of these aims perhaps works best with my use of “Mad Max.”  This is best exemplified by his own description, not only of the means with which to gather these details, but what those details mean to the individuals whom we are observing:

Besides the firm outline of tribal constitution and crystallised cultural items which form the skeleton, besides the data of daily life and ordinary behaviour, which are, so to speak, its flesh and blood, there is still to be recorded the spirit the natives’ views and opinions and utterances. For, in every act of tribal life, there is, first, the routine prescribed by custom and tradition, then there is the manner in which it is carried out, and lastly there is the commentary to it, contained in the natives’ mind. A man who submits to various customary obligations, who follows a traditional course of action, does it impelled by certain motives, to the accompaniment of certain feelings, guided by certain ideas. These ideas, feelings, and impulses are moulded and conditioned by the culture in which we find them, and are therefore an ethnic peculiarity of the given society. An attempt must be made therefore, to study and record them. (Ibid., 17)

This is not, of course, as simple as it might seem, which equally means that we are required to understand not just the look of their cultural actions, but of the language they use to do this: what we might call their ‘discourse.’  As he further concludes:

[…] it has to be laid down that we have to study here stereotyped manners of thinking and feeling. As sociologists, we are not interested in what A or B may feel qua individuals, in the accidental course of their own personal experiences—we are interested only in what they feel and think qua members of a given community. Now in this capacity, their mental states receive a certain stamp, become stereotyped by the institutions in which they live, by the influence of tradition and folk-lore, by the very vehicle of thought, that is by language. The social and cultural environment in which they move forces them to think and feel in a definite manner. (Ibid.)

Thus, to fully, and properly, observe an other’s culture through an entirely objective lens, we need to understand how to simply watch what it is that they are doing.  We gain this particular insight by watching the cultural tableaux in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Let me conclude here by once again declaring that my intentions with “Mad Max: Fury Road” are not to use the methodological form of ‘doing anthropology’ in order to better understand the fictional culture of the film, but rather, to use it within the context of designing a ‘dream course’ about anthropology.  Within an introduction to the manner and method we must adopt in observing another culture, the film represents an ideal combination of the want and need referenced above.  Not only does it present the subject of an introductory course in a ‘sexy’ way, it easily segues our discussion toward a practical use of the methodology of anthropological observation.

So, with all of this determined above, here’s my dream course:

Title: Fictional Anthropology: Making Sense of Observation by Looking through an Imaginary Lens

Description: When we read Malinowski’s seminal work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the famed anthropologist describes for us the requirements necessary of a truly objective cultural observation.  While this gives us a useful means of observing, recording, and writing about an other’s culture, it sometime leaves us without a practical description of how that might be done.  With this course we will apply the methodology of anthropological observation to a more ‘hands-on’ experience by making sense of a ‘fictional culture.’  What this will entail is a detailed observation of the world created by George Miller for his film “Mad Max: Fury Road.”  Alongside reading Malinowski’s Argonauts, we will try to determine the ‘imponderabilia’ of the culture within the film.  We will take field notes, compare insights, and even construct short ethnographic representations, both empirically objective and reflexively subjective, in order to make sense of the methodological requirements demanded of an anthropologist’s job in the field.  As an introductory course, those interested need not have any prior knowledge about anthropology, though students from all levels are warmly invited.