Real Beauty and Why Women Want

In my medical anthropology class last Thursday, three students led our discussion of Caroline Knapp’s Appetites: Why Women Want, a memoir of anorexia, desire, femininity and feminism, and women and their bodies. To break the ice, they broke the class up into small groups and had the other students work on imaginary magazine covers for Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, and Men’s Health (see also my previous post, Ethnography and the Everyday).

The startling thing, in retrospect, was not that it was a fun exercise, but that it was so easy to do. The students knew what each magazine aimed for, they got the stereotypical headlines down right, they mixed images and bodies and sex and fashion and pleasure into catchy titles. All those titles implied a need, and also a solution, an improvement. Even I got into the mix, adding some choice vernacular to the Men’s Health cover. The question lingers, why so easy…

Let me tell you first about the video that the student trio also showed, “Onslaught,” part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. It’s media. It gets its point across, and much more. Watch it. It’s short. It helps sets up my Randy Pausch head fake.

Knapp’s book Appetites dwells on the media, on men and women and sex, and on mother-daughter relations.

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How your brain is not like a computer

At the end of my last post, or the one before that, I had a late-night ‘inspiration’ that must have sounded a bit like an outburst about how our brains are not like computers. There’s lots of good reasons for making that assertion, whether or not it’s an outburst. But one of the key issues is concern about ’embodiment’ in cognitive science and the discussion of embodied cognition. Daniel, in his comments, put a link to the posting by Chris Chatham, 10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers, which is excellent. There’s also an interesting discussion of this going on at Dr. Ginger Campbell’s blog on her Brain Science Podcasts, both of which (discussion and podcasts) I strongly recommend. See the first two topics on the list you can find here on ‘Artificial Intelligence.’

For the anthropologists in our audience, however, the term ’embodied cognition’ is a bit unfortunate, not because it’s not a great term, but because an earlier intellectual movement in anthropology already snagged the adjective ’embodied’ and then didn’t push the issue far enough to actually deal with physiological and biological dimensions of being embodied. That is, in anthropology, the term ’embodiment’ has not been allowed to really stretch its wings, and has instead been more narrowly constrained to dealing with phenomenological, interactional, and theoretical issues deriving primarily from feminism, Foucauldian post-structuralism, and Bourdieu-ian sociology. All of these streams are important, but they do not yet engage with the sort of material that cognitive scientists mean when they use the term ’embodied.’ The danger is that anthropologists will see the term, ’embodied cognition,’ and it will not seem quite as disruptive to anthropology-as-usual as it should be.

Chatham’s posting makes this key issue clearer in his tenth reason that brains are not like computers: brains have bodies:

This is not as trivial as it might seem: it turns out that the brain takes surprising advantage of the fact that it has a body at its disposal. For example, despite your intuitive feeling that you could close your eyes and know the locations of objects around you, a series of experiments in the field of change blindness has shown that our visual memories are actually quite sparse. In this case, the brain is “offloading” its memory requirements to the environment in which it exists: why bother remembering the location of objects when a quick glance will suffice? A surprising set of experiments by Jeremy Wolfe has shown that even after being asked hundreds of times which simple geometrical shapes are displayed on a computer screen, human subjects continue to answer those questions by gaze rather than rote memory. A wide variety of evidence from other domains suggests that we are only beginning to understand the importance of embodiment in information processing.

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The history of mind-altering mechanisms

Katherine MacKinnon of St. Louis University just dropped me a line to point out a recent book review in The New York Times, I Feel Good, by Alexander Star. Star reviews the book, On Deep History and the Brain, by Daniel Lord Smail (University of California Press). Amazon raters are giving it 4.5 stars at the moment, if you want to check it out through the bookseller. Normally, I’d trust Daniel to write our best stuff about ‘mind-altering’ chemicals of all sorts, but this book review just set me to thinking, so I thought I’d put my own two cents in.

Smail wants to tell the story of humanity as a series of ‘self-modifications of our mental states,’ according to the reviewer Star:

We want to alter our own moods and feelings, and the rise of man from hunter-gatherer and farmer to office worker and video-game adept is the story of the ever proliferating devices — from coffee and tobacco to religious rites and romance novels — we’ve acquired to do so. Humans, Smail writes, have invented “a dizzying array of practices that stimulate the production and circulation of our own chemical messengers,” and those devices have become more plentiful with time. We make our own history, albeit with neurotransmitters not of our choosing.

Smail is really a historian, but his venture into a kind of neuro-history shows the robustness of the emerging awareness that the brain is shaped by what humans do. Star points out that most ‘macro-history’ these days — long, sweeping accounts of human evolution and what is sometimes called something prosaic like the ‘rise and fall of civilizations’ — is not being written by historians, but rather by folks like Jared Diamond. In contrast, Smail is a medieval historian.

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Deep Capture and The Situationist

The Situationist has a nine-part series on “Deep Capture”, the hypothesis that “there will be a competition over the situation (including the way we think) to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions and that those individuals, groups, entities, or institutions that are most powerful will win that competition.”   

Jon Hanson and David Yosifon lay out their theory most explicitly in Part VI.  (For those of you interested in the most recent post, which contains links to the earlier posts, here it is.)  They write, “[T]oday we have an extremely powerful institutional force with an immense stake in maintaining, and an ability to maintain, a false, though intuitive, worldview. Our basic hypothesis (and prediction) is that large commercial interests act (and will continue to act) to capture the situation–[both] interior and exterior–in order to further entrench dispositionism. Moreover, they have done so largely undetected, and without much in the way of conscious awareness or collaboration. Hence, large corporate interests have, through disproportionate ability to control and manipulate our exterior and interior situations, deeply captured our world.” 

For example, most public situations are defined through a “pro-commercial disposition,” favoring pro-business views as an “obvious truth.”  Or, to take a comment in another post on The Situationist website, The Disposition Is Weaker Than The Situation, in the US we favor an individual-oriented disposition through “attributing solely to people’s disposition what should be attributed significantly to the their situation. ‘Tough on crime,’ for instance, means ‘tough on criminals,’ not tough on the situations that tend to produce criminal behavior. ‘Personal responsibility’ means attributing personal bankruptcies to the flawed choices of those declaring bankruptcy and disregarding, say, the unexpected medical costs or layoffs experienced by families trying to make ends meet. ‘Common sense’ means blaming the obesity epidemic on the laziness and bad food choices on the part of the obese and dismissing any role that situational forces might have played.” 

Much of their proposal is about getting both everyday people and academics to stop being so naïve, to stop believing that most of the players in any given situation have a commitment to some larger “truth.”  They don’t.  As Hanson and Yosifon write in their first post, academic economists came to this realization after “two centuries” of seeing their best work ignored by politicians.  They had bought into the assumption that governments were about public welfare, and not about power, particular the monopoly and use of violence and having control over the redistribution of resources.  To be honest, I think most anthropologists still have this naïve orientation about “policy,” even as we are critical of those in power and often spend time trying to give voice to those who rarely have it in today’s world. 

In the end, it’s quite an interesting hypothesis, simply because it forces us to think differently about any given situation.  Who’s trying to control a situation?  How do they use our dispositions against us?  It’s a rather clever reduction of both inequality and cultural theory, of focusing on how power works and on how culture works at the same time. I might like to see some broader considerations of how culture/power come together, like I briefly outlined in the post Prison Nation, or with dispositions, how context, symbolism and neuropsychology come together, as Greg discussed in What’s The “Culture” in Neuroanthropology.  But Hanson and Yosifon present a lot of interesting considerations over the breadth of their series.

(insert clever French grammar title here)

Every once in a while, I drop some comment about language being ‘un-language-like’ when I’m talking about culture. It’s a tick, aggravated by my envy of linguistic anthropology, my wish that bodily practice was studied in anthropology as much (or had produced as much cool theory), and by my secret insecurity that I never took a course from Michael Silverstein when I was at the University of Chicago (what can I say? I was busy…). Most readers probably overlook my comments about language, chalking them up to PGSSD (post grad-school stress disorder) or some moral failing that they don’t want to know any more about. But I feel compelled to explain, especially since I found this great article on French speakers disagreeing on the gender of nouns (thanks to Dr. X’s Free Associations and grant-writing avoidance behaviour on my part).

Too often I think anthropologists use language ‘to think with’ when they are talking about ‘culture.’ Language is a kind of subliminal or suppressed metaphor guiding how they talk about this thing, culture. It leads to various problems, such as ‘code’ metaphors, reification of ‘the language/culture’ in things like meme theory, and the like. That is, people say some pretty daft things about ‘culture’ guided by the analogy with language.

The problem is, they’re not just committing sloppy thinking about human variation, they also don’t generally have a very grounded, empirically based view of language. That is, they assume things about language that linguistic anthropologists would dispute, especially those coming from a pragmatic approach (like Silverstein, from whom i took no courses and thus feel inadequate to be writing this).

Well, every once in a while, web surfing drops the perfect example right in your lap.

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Play and Culture

Two earlier posts on The Neurobiology of Play and Taking Play Seriously examined play as the neurobiological and behavioral levels.  Together, they present an argument for play as one primary way that animals with large brains achieve neurological integration through play’s role in skilled behavioral engagement and the building of social relationships. The last post ended by discussing the role of play in joint coordination and reciprocal fair play, and the first post by saying that play helps combine sensory information, emotional states, cognitive framing, bodily movement, and decision making. 

Today I want to argue that together, these processes help promote the production of culture.  Without the integration of basic neurological processing and social relationships into culture, culture is, in effect, an empty shell of forms and roles and symbols.  Play connects us into cultural forms, helps recreate them anew for developing individuals and even create new forms.  In other words, I see play as part of how we get cultural creole, which I discussed in an early post, Avatars and Cultural Creole, on the challenge persistent on-line communities present to anthropology’s theory of culture. 

But first a mini-ethnographic moment.  I went sledding with my kids the other day.  My eldest son’s best friend joined us, along with his older sister.  At first I was sledding with my little daughter as the boys zipped and at times tumbled down the hill on their own.  They started to create a game out of it, imagining they were space ships in battle.  Arguments began to break out over who beat whom and what type of ship each one could be.  A new game quickly evolved as I started to race down on my sled after them—suddenly I became the enemy, trying to torpedo them, hands outstretched as they tried to squirm away.  (To note, the combined rough-and-tumble/Space Wars held no interest for the older sister and was a bit too dangerous for my daughter, so they started hanging out and doing things together.  Play and gender…)  Then the game evolved more, as I went up the other side of the run-off pond where we sled.  First I was a dangerous battleship attacking them.  Tiring more quickly than they did, I finally simply lay there on the flat bottom of the pond and became a battlestar which they could ram with fierce joy. 
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