It’s All Relative

This week is graduation, and since it’s the only ceremony of this type in which I have allowed myself to be forced to attend, my family graciously came to visit.

Part of the fun of family coming to visit, is you get to see the city through the eyes of first-timers to Edinburgh.  Suddenly, all the places that eventually blended into the background of your mundane day-to-day, have regained the romance they had when you first arrived.

Whilst they were here, we enjoyed touring the Castle, St. Giles Cathedral, Rosslyn Chapel, Mary King’s Close, the High Street, the Christmas Market, golf at St. Andrews, and a few other spots.  At each of our stops, as we passed through the gift shops conveniently placed at every exit, we spent a bit of time looking over clan tartans.

Our sudden (or maybe longstanding) interest in all things Scottish tartan came with a reason.  It was perhaps quite convenient that just before my family arrived, a relative of ours discovered the following information about our Scottish heritage (on my father’s side):


The most relevant part of this new info is this:

In 1988, while researching an ancestor with Scottish lineage, I discovered that Maldred [my ancestral grandfather, d. 1045] was the younger brother of Duncan I, King of Scotland.  With this discovery, twenty additional generations were added to the previous documented 29 generations, resulting in 49 documented generations in this family.   

So, knowing now that we are descendants of Scottish Royalty, this last trip, with the whole family, felt extra special.

Of course, anyone slightly familiar with the content of this blog would know that I would simply write this off as a type of ‘fiction.’  In this case, however, and ever so briefly, I’ll let it slide.  I mean, I do in fact look a bit like Fassbender’s MacBeth, right?“>

So, all hail me, Dr. Ethan G. Quillen, Scottish Royalty.

On a less ridiculous note, my family’s new info, and thus further interest in all things Scottish Tartan, got me thinking.  In fact, while waiting out the long list of names called at the ceremony today, and perhaps as one last chance to consider changing my Thesis topic, I threw together this idea.  I will present it here as a brief abstract, because, given the celebratory frivolity of this afternoon and evening’s events, I simply don’t have the time to expand.

It’s All Relative: An Ethnographic Analysis of American-Scottish Identity Constructions

Everyday in Edinburgh, visitors from America come to the numerous ‘Scottish Heritage’ shops conveniently placed on the Royal Mile.  These individuals are, in our contemporary context, a new type of pilgrim.  They are in search of a connecting thread, a symbolic link to an ancient past.  They spend hundreds and hundreds of pounds purchasing clan information booklets, kilts, scarfs, and clothing fashioned from a particular woollen tartan, their tartan, a physical embodiment of their ancestral lineage.  Why do they do this?  This analysis will attempt to answer this simple question with four case studies, while at the same time both establish a linkage between these pilgrim’s construction of Scottish ancestry and the notion that they further an intercontinental sense of imagined community, as well as challenge the perception that one’s heritage is nothing more than a type of identity artifice, of fiction.

***One last funny anecdote from this week***

When my parents arrived, a day ahead of my brother and his family, we took them to the Christmas market.  While standing at the bar in St. Andrews Square, I caught the attention of a rather sullied and drunken gentleman chatting up a young woman.  He looked at me, caught her attention, and announced to all in ear shot:

“Look eh this chap, ‘ere.  This is a Scotsman!”

Then to me, he said:

“I bet your name is Robert Robertson from the highest highlands!”

Back to the young woman:

“Look at him.  He’s the most Scottish I’ve ever seen!”

Taking a moment to let his declaration sink in, as well as to build a rather large pregnant pause, I responded, in my most Southern California accent:

“Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m just an American”

My fellow drinkers found it rather humorous, and the drunken fellow happily hugged me.

He then further declared:

“Eh, it’s all relative!”




A Stereotypical Post

It must be fall (that’s ‘autumn’ to my British-minded friends).

Here’s how I can tell.

The weather here in Edinburgh has changed.  Our one day of summer (it’s customary to say that there’s only one day of summer here) has ended and we’re back to the cold, wet, raininess that Auld Reekie is known for.

There were a few days where you could walk down any main street without either:

  1. Being struck by an individual walking backward, quickly, while looking in a completely different direction, likely gesturing to someone else about how to get somewhere in town, or where the closest Starbucks is located.
  2. Being handed a flyer for a free one man show or free stand-up comedy routine, neither of which would, in the end, be worth the price of admission.
  3. Being inundated by a chorus of different sounding ‘musical’ instruments.
  4. Having to avoid walking too close to some poor idiot in a predator costume, or an alien costume, or pretending to be a statue, or that annoying one where there’s a guy sitting on the ground holding up another guy on a pole.  People go nuts with that one.  Why?  He’s holding a pole that is balanced on the ground and the guy on top is just sitting on a board!!!  It’s not that incredible, people!!!really?!?
  5. Finding yourself in someone’s picture; or, more accurately, finding yourself in everyone’s picture of some building pretending to be the ‘birthplace of Harry Potter’ (being hit with a selfie stick is included here).

In fact, for those few days, everything seemed nice and quite and lovely.

That’s changed a bit.  The end of the Edinburgh Festival has given way to the start of a new semester.  Now, rather than thousands and thousands of tourists, it’s hundreds and hundreds of bright-eyed, nervous-looking new students.

Not only is this evinced by the influx of people you see wearing brightly coloured windbreakers and comfortable walking shoes (likely hiking boots), as they’ve been told to wear in ‘European Cities’ by experts like Rick Steves, but by their parents, loud and heavily accented, holding up the self-check out line at Tesco, buying as much ‘Scotch’ as they can fit in their luggage.

As well, it was rather obvious the other day when I had to run over to the Main Library to print off yet another form for our visa extension application.  On the way, I passed by a Starbucks, noticing a rather large line.  I normally avoid establishments like Starbucks, not because I’m one of them ‘down with capitalism’ types, but mostly cause I don’t fancy gallons of caffeinated sugar water.  When I approached the line, I also noticed something rather particular about the clientele: they were mostly young, excited, women.  Was there some sort of event?  Was it aimed at women in particular?

In fact, and as I soon discovered, the event in question was the first day that Starbucks was serving their famous Pumpkin spice Latte.

Starbucks-Pumpkin-spice-LatteSo why all the women?

Because that’s the stereotype.

For a few years now, the ‘internet’ (the collective term we give to the ever-shifting discourse of the digital highway) has had a love affair with stereotyping the Pumpkin Spice Latte with ‘white girls.’

Here’s some pretty good examples.

This definition from Urban Dictionary:

pumpkin spice latte
A drink from starbucks that many white girls drink during the fall while dressed in boots (typically uggs), yoga pants (or leggings of some sort), and a jacket.
There must have been a lot of pumpkin spice lattes at the university in the winter, because all of the girls were wearing yoga pants, uggs, and a jacket.
by Viscerous November 15, 2013

This article on Flavorwire, aptly titled: “White Women Love Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Declares the Internet.”

All these tweets, collected by the good people at Thought Catalog.

Here’s a few samplers:
Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 17.58.43Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.02.50Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.03.45Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.05.15Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 18.06.08

There’s also these ‘meme’ images:

latte latte 2 latte 3

These are stereotypes, and stereotypes are interesting things.

Sure, they can tell us a lot about ‘other’ people, about their customs and culture, and about the way they define themselves.  In this way, they even represent a type of discourse: language used by individuals that we perceive in a particular way, and thus the language we use to describe those ‘others’ in a way that makes sense for both their context, as well as for our description itself.

Yet, they also tell us a lot about ourselves as well, not just in how we perceive those ‘others,’ but in how we might thus be stereotyping ourselves in the process.

After all, if identity construction is all about projecting an image we want to be seen by others, which is then validated by an external entity (that other person), and vice versa ad nauseam, then aren’t we constantly being stereotyped as we stereotype others.

This is something we should all consider, particularly concerning the type of terminology not only being used in Europe at the moment concerning the difference between a ‘refugee’ and an ‘immigrant,’ but about how we perceive others on a day-to-day basis in our interactions and conversations with other human beings.

These are things you might want to think about, I suppose, the next time a barista calls you forward and hands you that pumpkin spice latte with your name written on the cup.

The cover image I used for this post comes from an instagram account set up to criticise the ‘authenticity’ of people posting images of themselves on the internet, using, of all things, a Barbie doll.  It’s really good, and is definitely worth a look:

Language Games

My French is rather terrible, regardless of the courses I’ve taken at the amazing L’Institut Catholique de Paris.

This has not, of course, dissuaded me from trying to speak it whenever I’m in Paris.

Last week was one example.  It had been a year or so since I was last there, and thus since I last tried to speak French, which, in all honesty, is limited to ordering drinks at cafes.

Because I was taking a taxi to my hotel, I practiced three or four times, in my head, how to say: “13 Rue Des Beaux Arts.”  I made sure to pronounce ’13’ as ‘treize,’ and that I properly pronounced the ‘liaison’ between the ‘z’ sounding ‘x’ in ‘Beaux’ and the ‘a’ in ‘Arts:’ “boze-art.’  Also, I reminded myself not to pronounce the ‘t’ or the ‘s’ in ‘Arts:’ “boze-arr.”  Likewise, I reminded myself that the ‘r’ in ‘Rue’ had a simple ‘roll’ to it, like clearing my throat, while also lifting my bottom jaw: “rrrooo.”

When I approached the taxi driver, readily prepared, I completely fumbled it.  I said something like, “roo da boze-arts,” with an emphasis on the ‘t’ and ‘s.’  He looked at me oddly, to which I simply said the address in english.  He smiled, said it back to me in perfect French, and we were off.

On the way to the hotel, with that sweet smell of wet earth coming in the open windows, I started thinking of the language game we had just played.  Perhaps not exactly like what Wittgenstein meant in his section of Philosophical Investigations, but something at least related to it.

That is, where Wittgenstein’s philosophical theory of the ‘language game’ posits the notion that the meaning of a word should be achieved via a complex understanding of the similarities that ‘overlap’ and ‘criss-cross’ the uses of that word, and thus the ‘family resemblances’ that these similarities inspire, my interests were more connected to the idea that one of the meanings of a ‘language game’ is a type of ‘play-acting,’ a ‘dramaturgical’ back-and-forth between two players.

In his The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959), Erving Goffman refers to this dramatical ‘vis-a-vis’ as a ‘presentation’ of one’s self.  Relating this to the pragmatic manner in which an actor will construct his or her fictional identity as a character within a dramatical recreation of an imaginary (yet, similarly no less ‘real’) person, this equally means that when we present our identities, we are just as fictionally constructing the type of identity that we wish to be seen (and validated) by others.  In this same way, we may find ourselves ‘switching’ or ‘altering’ our self-characterizations in order to fit within differing contexts.

My interaction with the taxi driver was no different.  In my hope that he would recognise this as a return trip, and not my first experience in Paris, I practiced my lines before presenting the ‘Ethan’ that I wanted him to see.  I had, in this way, constructed a particular identity, a character within our little drama, that was both the real ‘me,’ as well as a ‘fabricated’ one designed for a specific reason, that I then ‘performed’ as if on stage.

I might argue, then, that this occurs constantly, a continuous identity alteration, from context to context and indefinite in its usage.  My horrific misuse of the taxi driver’s own language was an isolated example, a tableau of the dramatical construction between two selves presenting their identities for validation, and thus embodying a type of definitional interaction.

Which got me thinking.  If I designed myself in order to present an identity that I wanted both validated and defined by an other, wouldn’t that ‘other’ be presenting itself to me as well?  Did the taxi driver construct his own presentational self for me to recognise and validate?  What was the ‘self’ that he wanted me to see?

As I was thinking this, he quite timely turned down the French pop-music and tilted his head back.

“Are you American?” he asked with a heavy accent.

“Oui,” I responded.

“Ah, George Bush.  I no like ‘im.”