In Comparison a Disappointment Dwells

The title of this post is stolen from J.Z. Smith, particularly from a chapter titled “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” in his Imagining Religion.  In it, and in his uniquely erudite, yet frightfully frustrating tangential style, Smith constructs the argument that ‘comparison’ is an endeavour that leads, inevitably, to theoretical disappointment.  As he states toward the end:

[…] comparison is, at base, never identity.  Comparison requires the postulate of difference, as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodological manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end. (35)

In the contextual realm of identity construction, comparison becomes a necessary evil, the utilitarian acknowledgement of the way we identify ourselves in relation to others, how they recognise us as different to themselves, how that then dictates a two-pointed acknowledgment of opposed ‘selves,’ how we then recognise those ‘selves’ within groups, both similar and different, and in opposition to opposing groups, and vice versa, etc., in ad nauseam.

Beyond this condition, however, difference becomes, as Smith points out, ‘problematic.’  In comparison, we find ourselves not only seeing the difference between things, but how that difference reveals a bias we might have inherently developed about something we might consider ‘established.’

Here’s a good example:

In 1960, the novelist Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published.  In the fifty-five years since then, it has become almost exclusively ingrained in the American discourse, a fictional representation of a darker and more racially sinister nation, told from the perspective of a naive young girl, known as ‘Scout.’  Today, Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, will be released.  Written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but held from publication, and while a ‘sequel’ in the sense that the characters within her narrative are chronologically and philosophically developed versions of those represented in To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a very different sort of novel.  One major difference, as pointed out by a number of seemingly disappointed critics, is the ‘racism’ and ‘bigotry’ of Scout’s father Atticus, whose stalwart and passionate fight for justice created the moral backbone of To Kill a Mockingbird.  In this iteration, he is apparently, and bluntly, a very different man.

To mark this difference, and via a clever combination of two popular narratives having been recently ‘re-written’ for a new audience, the New Yorker published this cartoon:

new yorkerWhat perhaps intrigues me the most about the outcry over Atticus’ bigotry, revealed to Scout (now referred to by her real name: Jean Louise) via her sudden, almost shocked realisation that the moral compass against which she has shaped her own perception of the world is now a representative of the Southern bigotry of the 1950’s, is that I don’t think it is surprising at all.

This is where comparison comes in.

Atticus is the construction of Lee’s imagination, meaning that though we might have collectively elevated the character to the level of a paragon, a representation of a ‘good man,’ perhaps this is the Atticus that has existed all along.  That is, as the creator of the text, Lee’s notion of Atticus is really the only ‘true’ description.  Beyond that, and as readers, all we are capable of doing is perceiving that individual via the text ‘as it is.’  In other words, the shocking revelation that Atticus is a bigot, which works a wonderful magic for us as we empathise with the narrative’s protagonist, shouldn’t be all that shocking unless we have ‘established’ this character’s description in a particular way, such as Jean Louise has done.  Which reveals our inherent problem.  In our comparison of these two Atticuses (Attici?), we reveal our bias, our perception of an individual who, for the last fifty years, has meant ‘one specific thing,’ when in actuality, he’s always been this way, both in Lee’s imagination, and for the fact that Go Set a Watchman was written prior to To Kill a Mockingbird.  We are ‘shocked’ because we have betrayed our bias.  Our use of comparison has exposed our collective opinion that this individual, this fictionalised exemplar, is no longer represented in the way we had unanimously decided.

In this way, comparison breeds disappointment, simply because one thing compared with another reveals the fact that we might have been ‘wrong’ in our crystallised notion that this character was supposed to be a certain way.


Here’s a comparative example:

In 1922, Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic text, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, was published.  This text so ideally described the ‘doing’ of anthropology, not just in regard to the proper process of fieldwork, but in how that fieldwork should be translated into a realist text representative of a whole culture via select detailed parts, that it became something of a primer.  Soon, anthropology-in-general was conducted not only via his method, but his style was replicated to the point of exact duplication.  Most pertinent, perhaps, was the strict objectivity he prescribed, a complete removal of one’s opinion and voice, the evacuation of subjective notions for the benefit of objective facts.

The post-Malinowski era represented a rigorous and strict methodological paradigm: the placement of the anthropologist amongst his or her subjects, removed from his or her own culture; an immersion that required the learning of that subject’s language, their beliefs, customs, and rituals; a participant observation wherein the ‘imponderabilia,’ the native’s day-to-minutiae, would become first-hand experienced knowledge.  Moreover, this would then infect the textual representation later constructed to illustrate this subject’s culture, an omniscient and equally objective text focused with exact precision on providing the reader a vivid snapshot of another way of life.

In 1967, forty-five years after the publication of Argonauts, the anthropological advocates of this methodological precision would find themselves disappointed by comparison.

In a series of unfortunate circumstances, this year brought the publication of Malinowski’s personal diary, recorded during his time amongst the Trobriand natives.  Though he had died twenty-five years prior, and because we will never know whether he had ever intended for these personal reflections to have become publicly accessible, the content could only ever be read ‘as it is,’ and thus without his personal commentary.

Thus, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term was quite shocking.  Not only did we learn of his bizarre medical and psychological eccentricities (including an odd obsession with reading, while subsequently hating, fiction), we also came to find that he, the originator of anthropological objectivity, had a number of rather disparaging opinions about his subjects.  On certain occasions this would turn to an almost detailed hatred, not only of his subject’s way of life, but of their strange customs and culture.  Here, for the first time ever, was a subjective perspective from the paragon of an ‘objective observer.’

The result of this publication proved effectively critical to the notion that the ‘doing’ of anthropology was isolated to Malinowski’s prescribed method, to the point that over the next thirty or so years, the strict objectivity of both observing and textually representing one’s subject transitioned to a number of experimental products, including the fictionalisation of one’s fieldwork in the ‘ethnographic novel,’ and the reading of fiction ‘as ethnography,’ the latter of which I myself am guilty of exploiting.

Like my example above concerning Lee’s novels, the comparison here once again leads to disappointment, which then leads to a series of adaptations, shifts made in order to not only pacify the idea that something we once thought established has been ‘undone’ by a new perspective, but by the idea that in comparison our revealed biases must be re-established.

With both these examples, Smith’s notion of comparison, and thus the larger notion of determining a ‘difference’ between two things, reveals not just a bias on the part of the comparer suddenly disappointed by that comparison, but an impractical approach to the study of two things interrelated by an inherent similarity (such as his issue of the terms ‘history’ and ‘religion’ in his own description of himself as an ‘historian of religion’).  Thus, by comparing these two issues of comparison, we are reminded that any sort of comparison inevitably leads to disappointment, sending us further toward the need to adapt, pacify, and even re-establish our perceptions of that which we study, and further complicating the process as a whole.


BUT WAIT, you might ask, isn’t what you’ve done here just another comparison?  Did you not just compare the disappointment of Atticus’ bigotry in Go Set a Watchman with the disappointment felt by anthropologists after Malinowski’s Diary was published?

Yes, I did.  And isn’t that disappointing?

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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.