Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mary Douglas Lives Here: China Mieville's 'The City and the City'

****This is an essay that contains major spoilers. Do not keep reading if you don't want the book ruined.****

Reading this book made me think of Fritz Graf’s office. A few years ago, when I was slightly-haggard but still fresh from a Master’s program, I met with one of my professors, Dr. Graf, in his office to talk about some of my research interests. Back in those days, I was super-excited about all things liminal (crossroads, gates, thresholds, boundaries) and the religious prescriptions associated with them. Dr. Graf gave me a reading list to investigate and near the top was anthropologist Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger (1966).

The reason I bring this memory up is because I thought China Mieville’s new novel, The City and the City, perfectly actualized some of the main tenants in Mary Douglas’ study, especially her concept of symbolic boundary-maintenance and place. In Purity and Danger, Douglas explored concepts of taboo and the unclean. Her stance was basically this: we all view the world through a culturally specific paradigm, a framework that makes up the shape of our worlds. Within this framework, everything has its place. Order is created. This order can refer to many things; for example, it can be of a more symbolic social nature or a concrete physical one.

Think Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when she couldn’t get help to buy clothes on Rodeo Drive because she didn't look up to snuff. Think of the weird feeling you would get if your garden rake and shovel were stored next to your bed. Or if someone set up a hotdog stand on top of somebody’s grave in a cemetery, and people lined up amongst the headstones to get French fries with that. What if there was a white polar bear running loose on a tropical island?

When things are not in their proper place, disorder reigns. And disorder makes people and groups of people highly uneasy. This is especially true if something is neither on one side of a boundary nor on the other, but in-between. That, apparently, is the ultimate in sketchiness. Because (Douglas and many others would argue),* if you can’t put something into a certain category or place, the framework starts to tremble, plaster falls from its ceiling, cracks appear in its walls. It makes people upset.

~Massive Spoilers Henceforth~

And so we come back to China Mieville. His new book is a detective novel, one that is read widely in Sci-Fi/Fantasy circles even though some cry that it is NOT Sci-Fi/Fantasy. The story follows an investigator (Borlu) who is trying to solve the murder of a young archaeologist (eep!). But ever so slowly Mieville’s description of the city in which the action occurs (Beszel) becomes increasingly strange, as his protagonist talks of ‘unseeing’ buildings and vehicles and even people. Borlu’s thoughts shy away from pedestrians he passes on the street who aren’t there. There is reference to another city within Beszel, and I have to say I struggled for some time with whether or not this other place (Ul Qoma) was real - a ghost city, a magic vision, an echo of the past imprinted on the present? Eventually it becomes clear – and here I am spoilering the main premise of the book so stop reading while you can – that the physical space of the city is split between TWO cities, two social and political entities that stand directly next to each other, intertwine and overlap. It’s as if West Berlin had pieces of itself beyond the Wall and some neighborhoods of East Berlin had been left on the West’s side. The citizens of Mieville's two cities have learned to recognize an incredibly complex and nuanced series of symbols – in architecture, in clothing styles, in accents, in sounds, even down to human ways of walking - that indicate whether a person is in their own city or not. Identity and categorical signifies are crucial. Everyone and everything from the ‘foreign’ city must be ignored, unseen, unheard.

How is this ‘unseeing’ policed? By Breach, an interstitial bureau that stands (figuratively, not physically) between the two cities in its own liminal zone. The officers of ‘Breach’ maintain order by disappearing those who illegally cross the boundaries between the two places, whether by standing on the street and talking to a person in the other city or by accidentally walking into an abandoned lot that belongs to the other city. Breach exists to patrol the interstices.

The entire world that Mieville has so richly created is mind-bending. The ‘secret’ is ultimately revealed when the reader understands the shape of the world; when the reader gleans that the order of Mieville’s paradigm is a strange but deeply seated social construction that actually affects the way his characters process sensory data. At the end of the book, the city’s entire framework nearly collapses as the borders and boundaries dissolve. Mieville’s most outstanding moment comes when one particular character (the bad guy) has disguised himself in a way that hides those categorical signifiers that keep everything in place. No one can tell which city the bad guy is in, making him a devastating threat that no one can acknowledge. Around him people look, glance away, become confused, leave in great discomfort and distress - afraid that they are (but unsure if they are) ‘breaching.’ The danger this person poses is profound, taboo via failure to maintain place and boundary.

To me The City and the City took place inside Purity and Danger. The one illuminates the concepts of the other, although Mieville succeeded in doing so without all of Mary Douglas’ dirt. Incidentally, Mieville actually has a Bachelor’s in Social Anthropology from Cambridge. Of course, I was also happy to see the role of archaeology in the book, with professors at the excavation (in Ul Qoma) talking of stratigraphical inconsistencies and the Harris Matrix. (As an aside, Mieville never wrapped up a mystery involving the antiquities and the ancient culture they were excavating – I find this intensely bothersome. Still.)

In the end, I feel like The City and The City is one of those books that changes the shape inside your head. In many ways, the story was way too slow and the plot was rather a letdown. But perhaps that is the point. Halfway through you’re convinced and paranoid that there’s a mystical ghost city with a fantastical ancient past; you’re sure that there’s a huge Lost-worthy reveal waiting around the corner for the frantic characters. You think, in fact, that you’re reading something that fits the usual pattern of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. But then, when the who-dunnit arrives, it’s mundane, disappointing, pedestrian. It’s so…normal. Maybe, after all, you had interpreted all the Sci-Fi signifiers incorrectly. Maybe you were really just reading a detective story all along and didn’t know it. And perhaps that is the brilliance of Mieville’s effort, that not only does he disorient his characters amongst the symbolic boundaries of his Two Cities, but his readers are lost too, but this time in the interstices of genre.

* For some other biblio cf., A. van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (1909; Chicago 1960); S. Johnston, “Crossroads,” ZPE 88 (1991), 217-224; C. Faraone, Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual (Oxford 1992).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Which Katie Tries to Remember How to Ride a Bike

Yesterday I got back on my bike for the first time in 9 months. This hiatus was not by choice, of course. The reason I had not gone for a ride in so long was because Athens is not a particularly bike-friendly city nor is it particularly safe to ride in other parts of Greece. (Some of you may remember that time I got chased by gypsies near Tiryns, that one time I rented a bike in the Argolid. That's another story, though.)

Now, some communities are trying to change bike-life in Greece. There are definitely more bike rallies these days that are raising awareness (e.g. Thessaloniki). Rallies may not be common, but Athens actually had one (while I was away on an ASCSA trip), so I can verify that the Greek bike-rally in not a complete urban myth. It looks like now a company leads little cyclist trips in different parts of the country, a great idea, but its statement that "Greece is ideal for cyclists" borders on the absurd.

Anyways, I didn't take my bike to Greece with me (although I plan on doing so next time I go), and since I've gotten home from Greece I've pretty much been on the road traveling all about, sans bike. Plus my hubs had gotten so loose my bicycle was pretty un-ride-able. So yesterday I took it out to Apalachee Cycle, an awesome and super friendly shop out on the traintracks in Dacula.

Got my bike all gussied up with a tune-up and finally took it out for a spin. 

Monday, September 21, 2009


The poster job is officially over, and now I'm back in Atlanta for a few weeks, just in time for the torrential rains. Although I have gotten some reading done (Hello, Art History and Its Methods: A Critical Anthology), I have also spent some time driving in circles because the impassable roads are dangerously flooded, as well as standing knee-high in insulation, trying to deal with the leak in my mom's attic.

The swiftly-flowing river in my mom's backyard.

Since I didn't write many blog posts while I was out on the road, I figured now would be a good time to present the sorts of things I saw. Such as:

Some pretty cool architecture.

The Electric Slide, here at a street-fair (with DJ!) that was put on by a university.

The open road, and beautiful countryside. Route 29 in Virginia, my home-state.

Local flavor. The mosaics of Philadelphia's Magic Garden.

Posters and swine flu. The school where this sale took place already had over 600 documented cases of swine flu - give me a week and I'll let you know if I got it.

My partner, Ian. Reliable and hard-working, I saw my partner Ian for all 24-hours of the day, for 4.5 weeks. He can lift poster books like nobody's business, and drive a truck like a champ. It's he who I must thank for getting me on the poster tour. Thanks, Ian!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Super Bummed

Thanks to my mom, I grew up listening to Peter, Paul and Mary. They really were a major part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Today Mary died, and I can't tell you how bummed I am about it. She was always my ideal and model for the perfect female singing voice.

For me, 'Leaving on a Jet Plane' was first and foremost sung by a woman. I always found it to be very empowering when I was 10 years old because she was a woman who was doing the jet-setting.

And who could forget this number, the most significant tear-jerker of every childhood:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ithaca, New York: The Social Dynamics of the Poster Sale

One thing that has surprised me about the poster job, more than anything else, is the social codes embedded in poster buying. It never even really occurred to me, but now that I work poster sales, I am blown away by how seriously crucial it is to the college experience and how much you can learn about social norms through the whole poster process.

First, of course, is the sheer number of people who come to the poster sale, and who actually wait all year for it. They show up and say things like "Last year you had such-and-such a poster and it was on sale for such-and-such a price? Have you still got it?" Hell, I vividly remember going to the poster sale when I was a freshman in 1997, and plastering my room with Casablanca posters thereafter. The poster sale is actually an Event, an Event that's important because posters are vital in helping college kids create an identity.

That may sound like hyperbole, but it's really not! For a lot of these kids, it's their very first chance to decorate their space without parental input, and they choose subjects and images that convey important information about themselves. Sure, creating a certain mood and having a connection to the 'feeling' that posters create is a huge part of it. But so is making sure other people know what you're about and what you like. It's all bands, movies, quotes, and famous people. And in the end, there is a surprising amount of division along gender lines.

Girls buy this.

Dudes buy this

Now, it's no big secret that college males want to buy pictures of naked chicks for their walls, as one of this year's classy top sellers for frat boys attests:

The whole visual objectification of women is well-acknowledged. At the least most guys know that they should feel slightly ashamed about buying this sort of thing, thankfully. The above poster, when purchased, is usually tightly rolled up when brought to the register, or covered by a second, less offensive image. Naturally, I make sure to pull out the Nice Rack poster in a very visible manner, with a flourish, so that everyone in the near vicinity can catch a glimpse of what dude here is buying. But. I have to say, I have been much more horrified by what the women buy!

When it's not the black-and-white images of Kim Anderson's cutsey children dressed up like grown-ups, it's more often than not a picture of two people kissing in a romantic embrace. This I do not understand. Why do you want a picture of two strangers (not from your favorite movie or video or band) making out - on your wall?!

Here's some examples of the top sellers this year:

Any reference to Paris ups the sales instantly.

There two are entitled 'Urban Romance':

And who could forget:

Seriously. All of these. Top-sellers. And there's actually a LOT more that I didn't include here. In the end, 'the kiss' is objectified by women just as much as the female body is objectified by men. People always comment that men generally fixate on bodies while women instead fixate on the notion of romance. Sure. But nothing has made me more sure that this is culturally conditioned than working on the poster job. Why the hell are these images so popular? It's not just because part of buying a poster is the creation of a mood and a haven and a home. It's because the largest part of buying a poster is acquiring social and cultural identifiers that can be plastered on your wall for everyone to see. It communicates a message to other people who can recognize that message.

I don't know. My present poster partner Matt has said that if he ever went home with a girl who had one of these romance images on the wall, he would run the other direction. As fast as possible. So I guess in these cases women buy smoochy pics for other women. In fact, they sure do seem to buy them while in groups.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

James Frazer and 'The Name of the Wind': Rothfuss, Sympathetic Magic, and Donuts

Now that my poster job run has come to end, I’ve finally gotten a worry-free day off. Although I still have a week as a poster job ‘helper,’ it’s a position with little to no responsibility and stress, which leaves me with un-weighted shoulders. Since my poster-partner Ian has gone on to other things, I decided to spend the day here in the recently-renovated Red Roof Inn, Secaucus, doing one of my favorite things – laying in bed all day reading, in pajamas, greasy-haired and sandy-eyed. I had pizza delivered and got out of bed long enough to go to Dunkin’ Donuts.

My book of choice was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. It is a fantasy story about a young orphan who goes off to magic school in order to become a conflicted but brilliant young magician, pretty much in the vein of Harry Potter and Ged of EarthSea. The main character, young Kvothe, is a clever and gifted boy with a traumatic past, who has an innate ‘knack’ for learning anything and everything, and who turns out to be an extraordinarily powerful magic-user. He is also witty, swaggering and brash, but with the appropriate amount of humility, self-consciousness and insecurity thrown in at all the right moments. He loves one girl with all his heart and hates the requisite pair of enemies - a petty, troublesome and jealous human rival as well as a more world-endangering, all-powerful, malevolent foe. He is part FitzChivalry, part Locke Lamora and, yes, part Harry Potter. In other words, he is a fantasy hero that reader’s love to love, an addictive, engaging and indisputably perfect protagonist.

Young Kvothe is also a trouper, a musician/actor/storyteller. Rothfuss has created a character who breathes stories, who recognizes and contemplates structures and archetypes. He is familiar with plays, poems and songs, and when in a bind, can pull an Indiana-Jones-buying-tapestries-at-the-castle and fall right into the needed persona. Stories and myth are a constant part of Rothfuss’ world and there is even a mythical hero for bards, Illien, who composed the most famous and best epics ever to charm the ear.

The Name of the Wind is a story concerned with stories, even down to its very shape. Within the arc of the book, our main character recites his own history to a listening bard, and the telling of that tale is meant to take three days. The first book of the trilogy, The Name of the Wind, is mostly made up of the first day of that telling, while the second and third books of the trilogy (I assume?) will cover the subsequent two days. After all, the subtitle of the book is ‘The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One.’ Rothfuss here alludes to the tradition of oral poetry, a favorite topic for classicists. Twentieth-century research has emphasized the story-telling tricks of bards who can recite enormous epics over multiple days. It has been suggested, for example, that Homer’s Iliad was thus performed, broken up into three days.

Another feature of the epic tradition is repetition, and thus Rothfuss’ book begins and ends with ‘roughly’ the same passages, similar, in a way, to Robert Jordan’s 'Wheel of Time' ("The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades into myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again."). But for Rothfuss, although his corresponding prologue and epilogue surround a sonorous tale rife with music, singing, and the telling of tales, his repeated passage is a meditation on the three kinds of silence.

It is not just to the oral tradition that Rothfuss looks, but also to the early masters of anthropology, most recognizably Sir James Frazer. Frazer’s theory of magic finds its echo in the laws of magic found in Rothfuss’ world. I consider this worthy of note because 1) I’m interested in ancient magic, 2) I’m interested in historiography and religious theory and 3) I will be closely examining Frazer’s compatriots, The Cambridge Ritualists, in my dissertation. One of Frazer’s most indelible and long-lasting ideas was that of Sympathetic Magic. In his Golden Bough, he says “If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not. Charms based on the Law of Similarity may be called Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic. Charms based on the Law of Contact or Contagion may be called Contagious Magic.”

Kvothe, in a quite memorable scene from his time at the magical University, describes the laws of sympathetic magic thus: “First is the Doctrine of Correspondence which says ‘similarity enhances sympathy’…the more things resemble each other, the stronger the sympathetic link between them will be.” (Rothfuss, Kindle passages 5061-5073). He continues, lecturing to a class of students, “Second is the Principle of Consanguinity, which says, ‘a piece of a thing can represent the whole of a thing’…An easy way of thinking of it is, ‘once together, always together.’” (5061-5090). While explaining these things, our hero constructs a voodoo doll made of wax in perfect accordance with the idea of Sympathetic Magic that Frazer championed.

But Frazer believed the sympathetic magic system to be a “spurious system of natural law,” “always an art, never a science,” with its practitioners “in complete ignorance of the intellectual and physiological processes.” Rothfuss, in contrast, has created a system of magic that does bear the signs of science. He adds a law to Frazer’s list: “Third is the Law of Conservation, which says ‘energy cannot be destroyed or created.” (5061-7) His magicians (or arcanists, as they’re called) must be cognizant of energy sources and percentages of transference – magic requires energy, often heat, but the efficacy of one’s sympathetic working effects how much of that energy can be transferred in the whole process of ‘like produces like.’ That is, burning the foot of a voodoo doll with a candle won’t do much to the victim, since it is, after all, only a candle flame. An arcanist will have to find a more scorching heat to do any real damage. Meanwhile, to become effective magic users, Rothfuss’ University students must all have an understanding of other topics like anatomy, physiology, engineering, etc. We’ve moved beyond Frazer’s “spurious science” and “bastard art.” Rothfuss has concocted an endlessly interesting magical system that allows for a great deal of creativity on Kvothe’s part but that also has an inherent and stable logic.

On top of sympathetic magic, Rothfuss’ follows the general trend in emphasizing the power of names, but that’s a whole other barrel of fish which I’ll talk about some other day.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed The Name of the Wind. How could I not? It has all those elements that you’re supposed to enjoy: tragedy, dashing heroics, witticisms, lovelorn teenagers, and earthy idioms. If occasionally the characterizations were a little vague and unfocused around the edges, it didn’t matter much; my first act upon finishing the book was to try and buy the sequel. Alas, it’s not ready yet. Once again, the perpetual pain of starting a book series that hasn’t actually been finished. There’s always Frazer, though, if I’m desperate for some sympathy.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ye Olde America

We've spent the last week in the Lehigh Valley,stationed in Allentown, PA. It's been a long time since I was wow'd by a sense of history while in the US, but driving around the countryside lately has felt like being dropped in a History Channel documentary. All the buildings are smaller, and wooden, with little doors and low ceilings. The landscape itself is positively colonial, with short, close-fitted, rolling hills that look like they could come straight out of a Revolutionary War movie. The other day we sold at a college that was established in 1742 - for a person intimately familiar with large land-grant universities founded in the 1880s, the idea of a US university dating to before the Constitution is pretty damn exciting.