THIS IS MY BLOG.
I am on a Claude Lévi-Strauss kick, so indulge me, kindly.
During World War II, Lévi-Strauss escaped Vichy France for New York, where he taught at the New School and developed a great affection for America. I was especially taken aback by this passage this morning from Tristes Tropiques:
“Those who maintain that New York is ugly are simply the victims of an illusion of the senses. Not having yet learnt to move into a different register, they persist in judging New York as a town, and criticize the avenues, parks and monuments. And no doubt, objectively, New York is a town, but a European sensibility perceives it according to a quite different scale, the scale of European landscapes; whereas American landscapes transport us into a far vaster system for which we have no equivalent. The beauty of New York has nothing to do with its being a town, but with the fact, obvious as soon as we abandon our preconceptions, that it transposes the town to the level of an artificial landscape in which the principles of urbanism cease to operate, the only significant values being the rich velvety quality of the light, the sharpness of distant outlines, the awe-inspiring precipices between the skyscrapers and the sombre valleys, dotted with multicolored cars looking like flowers.”
- Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques
Today, as I write my dissertation on anthropology and the art of storytelling, I am steeped in Claude Lévi-Strauss and his writings on myth and meaning. I discovered this interesting passage in which he explained that he had always hoped to become a musician.
Central Park, NYC
“I have always dreamed since childhood about being a composer or, at least, an orchestra leader. I tried very hard when I was a child to compose the music for an opera for which I had written the libretto and painted the sets, but I was utterly unable to do so because there is something lacking in my brain. I feel that only music and mathematics can be said to be really innate, and that one must have some genetic apparatus to do either…Since I was struck by the fact that music and mythology were, if I may say so, two sisters, begotten by language, who had drawn apart, each going in a different direction – as in mythology, one character goes north, the other south, and they never meet again – then, if I wasn’t able to compose with sounds, perhaps I would be able to do it with meanings.” – Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning
“The tide abides for, tarrieth for no man, stays no man, tide nor time tarrieth no man.”
Plaster casts from Salisbury Cathedral, at Cornell’s A.D. White Collection. The cathedral contains the world’s oldest working clock, dated AD 1386.
Revelation can be more perilous than Revolution. – Vladimir Nabokov
There Is No Word
By Tony Hoagland
There isn’t a word for walking out of the grocery store
with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack
that should have been bagged in double layers
—so that before you are even out the door
you feel the weight of the jug dragging
the bag down, stretching the thin
plastic handles longer and longer
and you know it’s only a matter of time until
bottom suddenly splits.
There is no single, unimpeachable word
for that vague sensation of something
moving away from you
as it exceeds its elastic capacity
—which is too bad, because that is the word
I would like to use to describe standing on the street
chatting with an old friend
as the awareness grows in me that he is
no longer a friend, but only an acquaintance,
a person with whom I never made the effort—
until this moment, when as we say goodbye
I think we share a feeling of relief,
a recognition that we have reached
the end of a pretense,
though to tell the truth
what I already am thinking about
is my gratitude for language—
how it will stretch just so much and no farther;
how there are some holes it will not cover up;
how it will move, if not inside, then
around the circumference of almost anything—
how, over the years, it has given me
back all the hours and days, all the
plodding love and faith, all the
misunderstandings and secrets
I have willingly poured into it.
Ok, I’m an anthropologist. You think that has nothing to do with business and leadership. But I spend all my waking hours thinking about business and leadership–and using my anthropology background to do it.
So they are very related, and I’m going to start writing about that.
First of all, businesses are little cultures. All of them have their leaders, laborers, divisive factions, politics, costumes, rites of passage, cultural trends, gift exchanges. If you can understand culture, then you can understand business. But if you don’t understand culture, then you’re going to think that business is just about money and functionality and top-down decisions. You are going to forget that everything about it is social and lateral.
Second of all, everything a business does is in its cultural identity. What’s that? It’s a brand. A brand is a costume. It’s the role that you get to play when you use a product.
Remember when you thumped your chest as a kid and put on your Captain Wonderful costume and declared “I’m the Queen of Pollywog Playhouse! No Boys or Parents or Barbies Allowed!!!” (Or when, as an adult, you thumped your chest and said “I’m a Gay-Friendly American Liberal Feminist WOMAN! No Republicans Allowed! Hear Me Roar! Rarrrrr!”) Well brands are the same thing. They are constructed, dress-up, make-believe, silly worlds. Playtime for adults.
In other words, they are a way of saying: I’m in this club – and you’re not.
When you use an iPhone, you get to slip into this new identity for a moment and “dress up” as an Apple user. Everyone sees you using it and when they see you, they make judgments about you. They make conclusions about what you eat (foodie), how you’ve been educated (well), how you live (you like good design and fashion), and where you fall on the form vs. function spectrum (you think both are important, but you probably prefer form). Sure, there are some crazy Tea Party Bible-thumping fashion-phobic iPhone users, too, they’re out there for sure, but the thing about culture is that it is always a sweeping survey (which is why it can change and be fluid and interpretive and also why it is infuriating to those who try to pin it down).
Next, after people size you up for your phone, they size you up for the other brands you use and what those brands say about you: your Nike shoes, your Prada glasses, your Target sheets.
Brands are a way of communicating everything about you and your values without having to speak!
We are walking museums and we use brands to curate the things we want to say and not say to the world. We use our objects to create magnificent and elaborate make-believe worlds, and then we invite others to come into those worlds and play with us. Brands are not just the toys themselves – they are the entire world that we create with those toys. Brands are social and brands are magical.
IN OTHER WORDS: “PRODUCTS” ARE ALIVE AND THEY CAN SPEAK.
I love reading Young Adult fiction from time to time, in part because I am always surprised by just how good some of the stuff is. Last week, on a whim, I picked up Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman. Handler is better known by his pseudonym Lemony Snicket, while Kalman is better known for her illustrated column in the NY Times.
The two have come together to create this wonderful candy of a book that profiles a teenage girl as she breaks up with her boyfriend. Sounds pathetic, right? But here Handler has done such an exceptional – and I mean truly exceptional – job of capturing the inner voice of a smart, irreverent, pretentious teenage girl that I rank its portraiture (though not its depth) right up there with Anna Karenina – the only other book by a man that, in my experience, has ever succeeded in portraying a female perspective.
(I also read Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart last week – also a story of a teenage girl told from a man’s perspective – and it was so bad, I mean SO BAD, that I couldn’t even finish it. Like so many other men, Murakami has assumed that a girl’s teenage years are filled with nothing but brainless desperation).
Writers everywhere – especially perhaps screenwriters – should read Why We Broke Up to study the art of dialogue. It does a truly excellent job of weaving together the over-confidence and under-confidence of teenage conversation.
Incidentally, the book has triggered a spin-off project collecting people’s breakup stories. That, to me, is less interesting (it feels a little hipster-y & whiny), but check it out here.
And finally, in the terrific video below, Maira Kalman herself describes the relationship between Creativity and Walking.