Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Entries Tagged as '2010 Jesse'

Burnham Market

November 18th, 2010 · No Comments

See Burnham Market for photos from our presentation.

A short summary of our presentation:

How to Get there: 25/35 Bus to Norwich Railway; Norwich to Sheringham or Kings Lynn; Coast Hopper Bus to the Burnham Market stop

About the population: People who live here are in a higher socioeconomic bracket. Named cottages, private businesses, and expensive prices denote richer clientel. Known also as Chelsea-on-sea, the area is a popular place for seasonal homes.

To Do: Shopping, boating, musical events, Holkham Estate Tour, Bygone museum, beach. Most of the area’s attractions are dictated by tourism or summer events.

History: Named for it’s proximity to the river Burn, the town is a culmination of three smaller villages. It’s most famous resident is Horatio Nelson.

Shopping: Shops in Burnham Market are all independent merchants with relatively expensive pricing including a butcher, a baker, several independent clothing stores, a vintage shop, cafes, and several art galleries. Most stores boast locally procuded goods and handmade items. The one chain store in the main shopping area, Jack Mills, sold preppy, fairly expensive clothing as well, but targeted a slightly younger consumer.

Image: Ivy creepers, calculatedly careless shop designs (i.e. the inside of the post office), and hand painted signs creating the image of a quaint, old time village. Clerks gave customers individualized attention and boast hand made items to create a more personalized appearance. The Jack Wills emblem, a duck with a top hat and cane above the words “Fabulously British” exemplifies the image of Britishness that Burnham Market illicts, the duck appealing to a good humored, modern crowd, and the top hat and cane hearken back to moneyed and aristocratic roots.

For more information about Burnham Market http://www.burnhammarket.co.uk/

Tags: 2010 Jesse · 2010 Luke · 2010 Melissa

Parks as separated spheres (sorry my title is not more exciting)

September 20th, 2010 · 2 Comments

I have been avoiding the parks post because I initially felt like I had very few interesting things to say about them. I’ve spent a ton of time in Hyde Park (because I keep coming back to see if there will be people at Speakers’ Corner), some time in Regents Park and briefly visited the other ones plus the various greens and squares in the middle of the city. A lot of people have already mentioned that the parks are very beautiful, good places to withdraw from city life, make beauty accessible to people of all classes and economic means, etc. All good points, so I won’t beat them to death with another post about them.

I wandered about Hyde Park to a good two hours one day because I got lost, it’s huge, and the landscaping does a really good job of hiding the existence of a city outside the oasis inside (It’s kind of like how the mega Walmart at Dickinson has no windows so once you get in you lose your ties to the outside world and can’t escape, except Hyde Park is absoloutely beautiful and a not soul sucking). Anyway, what struck me as really weird was that a lot of the park seemed to have no other function than to be pretty. Every park I’ve ever been to at home is composed of a playground to entertain kids and open space to play sports. They might be landscaped or otherwise decorated, but that part takes up very little space. Landscaping at home serves as decoration for a space designed for some other purpose, while her prettiness seems to be the main purpose and other functions (open fields, playgrounds, etc.) are an afterthought in a different section. (I’ve also spent very little time in big city park, so it might just be a difference in suburban and urban parks). For example, the first section in Regents Park does not allow balls, so I had to go to a different, less decorative part to play Frisbee. It’s very deliberately divided up.

Assuming it’s not just an urban suburban difference, I think designing a green space just to be a green space and having these deliberate divisions is very in keeping with the English character, the London character in particular. Kate Fox talks a lot about the obsession with privacy. People like to have their own sectioned off garden with a very high fence. They hold up giant newspapers in the subway, stare straight ahead, or make out in very public places as a way to section themselves off into artificial private spheres. The character, Wemmick, from Great Expectations divides his home and work spheres so completely that he seems like he has multiple personality disorder. It’s as if it’s an English disease (thought I think not necessarily always a bad thing).

London is a crowded place, and I can totally understand the need to have all these spheres to create a semblance of privacy. In the Arran House alone, I’ve been having private skype conversations that my entire hallway can hear while sitting in view of one of the cameras at the desk; I’ve just been pretending it’s a private sphere. Parks in London just seems like a strong physical manifestation of these psychological divisions – a section specifically for just being pretty, a section for runners, a section for team sports, a section for free speech (Speaker’s Corner). It’s the very opposite of the complaints I so often here in the United States about our over-stimulated, forever multitasking populace. It actually makes me wonder if British television, advertisement, and video games are significantly different from American ones. As far as I know British students start specializing much earlier, too. In contrast, our education system stresses the idea of the well-rounded student, good at every subject in school and doing a million extracurriculars to get into (among other types of schools) a prestigious liberal art college that continues to focus on well roundedness (required courses in other disciplines), even though the job market is specialized. That’s getting a little off topic, though.

Bottom line: parks — super pretty. Divided into single purpose sections. Reiterate the idea of British spheres for the purpose of privacy (although I think there are many other purposes and results of those spheres besides privacy).

Pictures coming as soon as my computer stops being lame.

Tags: 2010 Jesse

Everything you ever wanted to know about Scientology in London

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

This is a very long post because I am really, really excited about it. If you don’t feel like reading the entire thing, the part that is relevant to England is just in the section labeled “analysis” at the bottom.

While several other people from our group were off being awesome and seeing the Pope yesterday (I’m still really jealous), there was a scientology protest on Tottenham Court right across the street from the Scientology clinic, complete with V for Vendetta masks, megaphones, picket signs, and a lot of bizarre internet references. This is pretty much a dream for someone like me because it combines angry protestors, really odd subcultures, and a religion that allegedly contains aliens. (I know, right?! Better than Bedlam with psych wards, cannibals, and feminism). So I got a chance to talk to the scientologists inside the clinic for a while, and then I talked to a few of the protestors across the street, one of whom was a rogue scientologist. He termed himself a “squirrel,” which is a person who still believes in the axioms of scientology but has disconnected himself from the establishment.

Anyway, I’m not sure how familiar most people are with scientology. I already knew a lot of the social issues surrounding it because of media coverage, but I’ve never gotten an account of the belief system from an actual scientologist. I’ll give a rundown of the things I thought were important:

Part 1: The woman I spoke to inside the clinic was a little odd, but perfectly happy to talk to me, show me informational films, and give me free literature. She did not attempt to sell me anything, give me a diagnostics test that would tell me I was depressed and should pay her a bunch of money, or otherwise brainwash me. I asked her what she thought about the press coverage of scientology and the allegations that it’s exploitative, and she genuinely didn’t seem to have any knowledge of abuse to people within the church or a pyramid scheme going on. So I’m going to assume she was a believer rather than a person at the head of the church making a ton of money.

According to what she told me, L. Ron Hubbard is the founder of Scientology, but only a man rather than a prophet. He has written all the scriptures (which are read at services on Sundays just like many other religions), the main one being The Thesis of Dianetics. He also wrotes the prayers. I found this interesting because every religion I’ve ever studied has holy scriptures directly from God(s) or a prophet and then some have other important documents written and axioms written by men.

When I asked her about her conversion, she said that she never converted because Scientology is supposed to be addition rather than a superseder of other religions. She was also Catholic and often attended Catholic masses when she was with her parents. This means that scientologists do not officially evangelize. Scientology is also apolitical apparently, no official stances on abortion.

I also asked her about the religion itself. Firstly, no aliens, apparently (disappointing). No mention of Xenu. Thetans, she said, are basically an equivalent to the soul except rather than saying you have a soul/thetan, the soul/thetan is you. There is a trinity of self composed of mind, body, and soul/thetan. The thetan returns after your death, so Scientology is a religion of reincarnation. There are eight dynamics of life which become increasingly broad: self, family and all things sex related, group/friends/community, mankind, living things, physical universe, spiritual self, and infinity/supreme being. This was another detail that struck me as extremely weird because it was the only mention she ever made of God in her whole explanation. There is a whole we-are-all-connected-Lion-King motif with the dynamics, which is very familiar, but the main emphasis she placed on her explanation was self help. Scientology is supposed to allow you to rid the negative energy from your life. It focuses heavily on L. Ron Hubbard’s idea that the mind regulates the body, so believers go to counseling sessions where they work on different aspects of their life (communication, relationships, hostilities of life), and they ascend to different levels as they improve. You are also supposed to study. Scientology offers courses for personal betterment (you have to pay for them because there is no government funding) and you can study to become ordained, in which case you study under a superior and also ascend levels of awareness. A lot of hierarchy going on. They’re especially antidrug because they want to focus on the mind, and drugs are bodily and act as toxins.

If I had to simplify it, I would say she was focusing on psychological self help with spiritual axioms.

Part 2: The protestors outside were equally odd and equally happy to talk to me (They invited me to the pub after about an hour but my stranger danger blinker was buzzing). They are part of an internet based organization called Anonymous, which has taken Guy Fawkes from V for Vendetta as their mascot. They wear the masks so as not to be followed/sued by Scientologists. I could write a whole paper on the internet subculture surrounding this protest, but this post is already way too long. I talked to two of the few people not wearing masks, one of whom was a well researched protestor and the other a Scientologist that broke away from the church. Major issues they had:

  1. Pyramid scheme – Scientology is organized so that people have to pay massive amounts for counseling to ascend to the next OT (operating thetan, don’t worry, I’ll get to an explanation) level. They can only get free counseling if they agree to volunteer for the church in which case they’re working for insanely low wages, and if they decide to leave the church they must pay for all the counseling they’ve ever had in lump sum.
  2. The church abuses people by denying them access to medicine they need. Lisa McPherson is an example they mentioned of a woman who died. However, they place people on strong regiments of Scientology vitamins, which make them more money.
  3. Scientology can label any person as an SP (supressive person) or negative influence on someone within the church. If a superior labels your family member as an SP (this can be for anything, like suggesting that Scientology may be dangerous), you can no longer talk to that person.

While the woman inside said L. Ron Hubbard wrote science fiction to fund his research on the nature of man, the non-Scientologist protestor said the sci fi discredited him. The woman inside said that the church was involved with charitable works for the community and participated in interfaith organizations, but the man outside said that all Scientology’s charitable works were minimal for publicity or self-serving. An example he used was Narconon, a program in which Scientologists provide free counseling and drug rehabilitation, which allows them to pull in more people.

Anonymous Scientology Protest, London

Picture taken from http://www.altogetherdigital.com/20080210/anonymous-vs-scientology-strange-goings-on-in-london/ (Coverage of another Scientology protest in London)

Part 3: This is about the guy who referred to himself as a “squirrel,” a Scientologist against the establishment. He told me a lot more about the way OT levels work because he had risen several levels through counseling before leaving. Thetans are not just personal souls; they’re also energy from different life forces that float around on earth and sometimes attaches to people without either being’s knowledge. Counseling allows you to cleanse yourself of thetans. He actually experienced an exorcism of a thetan as powerful as himself (he said he couldn’t believe that he was controlling his body and she wasn’t) who came back to visit him several days later. He said that he never believed Xenu, an alien in the Scientologist narrative who sent a bunch of thetans to earth’s volcanoes; he understood the story strictly as a metaphor. He did still believe in the axioms, and mention one: “Life is a static capable of postulates and considerations.”

Analysis: I can see why Scientology is so attractive to so many people. It has commonalities with a lot of different religions. The levels of awareness and cleansing are similar to levels of enlightenment in some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism. The 8 dynamics are a familiar hierarchy, and the eighth dynamic infinity/the supreme being. which encompasses everything else, also hearkens back to other religions. For instance, Islam and Judaism focus so much on the infiniteness of God that they are aniconic. You cannot depict God or speak of God without special ritual so that you are not in danger of quantifying God. The trinity of mind, body, and soul seems awefully similar to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit trinity we find in Christianity. Plus, the idea of a thetan, when we compare it to a soul, doesn’t really sound farfetched at all. Yogic Hinduism focuses on releasing negative energy akin to parasitic thetans. Muslims perform ritual purifying before every prayer. The focus on study, the fact that believers are supposed to take courses, is pretty similar to studying the Torah for bar mitvah or the Bible for confirmation.

It’s also very attractive because it reiterates a lot of popular sentiment about psychology and self help. There is already an issue with the overpresecription of drugs because drug companies have so much influence over doctors. Scientology reiterates the fear of overmedication. Western society is also a society obsessed with psychology. More people than ever see therapists. Depression has invaded so thoroughly that it is used a synonym for sadness. A religion that revolves around self help fulfills a need. Also, the fact that Scientology is a spiritual form of self-help with very little emphasis on God might be very practical for the English in particular. The census we saw notes that many English consider themselves spiritual, but do not believe in God.

The attractive part of the religion of Scientology makes the establishment of Scientology extremely terrifying because everything the protestors named had a seemingly reasonable counterpoint. Scientology could be a money making scheme, or it could be that scientology needs money to operate just like any other religious establish needs membership fees and donations to operate. Scientology does not receive government funding in England because it does not pass the means test so maybe it needs even more money (The protestors told me that the Scientology church in England gets around this by registering under Australia which has no means test, but I unfortunately can’t find any research on it). Scientology could be brainwashing people by having superiors hover over them, excommunicating their relatives, and denying them medical attention, or they could just be providing mentors and trying not to overmedicate people. Obviously, there is something wrong with an establishment that abuses people, but from the inside it’s very difficult to define abuse.

We also have to separate the religion from the establishment and look for the good. The “squirrel” I talked to felt deep spiritual benefit from belief in the 8 dynamics, counseling for communication skills, and the release of thetans and energy. None of the stories or axioms he talked about were any siller than a virgin birth, a man whose head is replaced by an elephant’s, or Muhammad splitting the moon. They’re just myths (I mean stories within a tradition, not false accounts) that create a discourse for a belief system. When I asked a man at the Hindu temple why there was a statue of Krishna and not Vishnu, he told me it was because they were the same, and that every god in the temple was a different avenue to the same God, just like there are many different Tube routes back to Tottenham Court (his analogy, not mine). Hokey, yes, but I love this sentiment because it reminds us that tolerance should extend to any path that benefits people. That does not mean we should tolerate an abusive establishment. The protestors told me that unlike America, England defines Scientology as a religion, giving them special legal rights to practice. But it does mean that we shouldn’t dismiss individuals who believe in the Scientology as wackos, especially since the its definition as a religion depends not just on its legitimacy as a belief system but the legitimacy of the establishment that endorses it.

So in summary, we should all respect each other and be friends (Please tell me if you read that entire thing, that my thesis came out to more than that).

A source recommended to me by the protestors:

Sikh comedian’s explanation of Scientology. Recommended by the “squirrel”

Tags: 2010 Jesse

Sir, please cross your legs on stage. That’s unladylike.

September 19th, 2010 · 5 Comments

In the last month, I have seen Merry Wives of Windsor, Bedlam, Les Miserables, 39 Steps, and The Habit of Art, which is significantly more theater in a very short time than I’ve been able to see in the US. So that being said, I have to get my initial gushing about how excited I am that I’ve had this great opportunity and how it’s really great that London makes its arts so cheap to attend and accessible to the public. I say this mostly because I’m genuinely thrilled. I really can’t get over how awesome it is that I get to see all this stuff as part of a class for really cheap. I think that although Kate Fox talks about the English egalitarian sentiment as a largely hypocritical façade for a very unequal class system, the English really do an amazing job of making beauty accessible to everyone – free museums, cheap theater, beautiful parks, etc. (I also say this because my mom keeps reading my Dickinson blog – hi Mom! – and it’s a super cranky blog because American Studies has trained me that when I analyze, I must be angry and critical of society). But anyway, everyone has already talked about the accessibility of beauty. So I’m going to do the other thing that American Studies has trained me for: talk about something inappropriate and pretend it’s academic.

Today’s topic is cross-dressing. Out of all the plays I’ve seen, Les Mis was the only one that did not contain a prominent cross dressing scene, and it’s not English in origin. Bedlam was so intent on having a cross-dressing scene that it didn’t even matter that there was no explanation for it in the plot. The Habit of Art was not even a comedy, and it still had a cross-dressing scene. What part of the English psyche demands a man in drag so intently that it has become a staple of theater? 

Kate Fox would probably say it’s the “importance of not being earnest,” the idea that one must never take oneself too seriously (62, 63). Serious plays must be offset by something self-deprecating and silly, and comedies must contain some form of low brow humor to offset the perception that the jokes are too high and pleased with themselves. (American Studies Jesse would at this point start discussing: 1. The sexism in the idea that a man in drag is funnier and more self-deprecating than a woman in drag because women are less valued in society. 2. The classism in the language of “high brow” and “low brow” and how it creates a humor hierarchy that perpetuates class stereotypes about intelligence and arrogance. But American Studies Jesse is going back into her angry-at-society box now, away from this discussion).

What Kate Fox does not address, is why the “importance of not being earnest” specifically manifests itself in the form of men in dresses and stockings. Sexism and classism are not exclusive to England, and they’re too easy an answer. One of my theories has to do with Liz’s favorite topic, Shakespeare. Shakespeare seems to be a huge point of national pride for the English, and his plays contained a lot of cross dressing for comedic purposes, plot purposes (i.e. The Twelfth Night), and for the practical purpose that only men used to act so they would have to play women’s parts. Maybe the influence of Shakespeare has seeped its way into modern theater in the form of cross dressing. I definitely think at least Leyshon felt some pressure to write some Shakespearean humor into Bedlam since it was performed at the Globe.

My other theory has to do with the absolute silliness of the men’s outfits that we saw in National Portrait Gallery. We look upon the tights, lacy and velvety frills and fabrics, codpieces, and otherwise ridiculous jewelry of the upper class men from the Tudor and Stewart line with the same out of context amusement that we see in the stupid haircuts of cool kids in our parents undoubtedly see in skinny jean leggings. Maybe the history men’s fashion, some of which is totally effeminate by today’s standards, has affected theater. Every time an English person see a man in a dress and suspenders maybe it hearkens back to the old days of the monarchy and the glory of the empire. (Fun fact: Vicky taught me yesterday that in England, suspenders are those little clasps that women use to hold their stockings up rather than straps that old people and people that enjoy ska music use to hold up their pants).

For more information on cross-dressing in theater, here is an article from the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2007/sep/07/whatilikeaboutcrossdressin

I welcome any other ideas.

P.S. Mom, England is very fun and educational and full non drag queen related learning experiences.

Tags: 2010 Jesse

Why is the Church of England dying?

September 14th, 2010 · 5 Comments

So far we’ve visited several cathedrals and chapels of the Church of England, a Hindu temple, a Sunni mosque, and a synagogue, and as far as I can tell, Christianity seems to be the only dying religion in England. To be fair, I’ve only visited really famous cathedrals and they’re bound to be turned into museums because of their history, but regardless, church attendance in England, belief in a God: way down. I’ve been racking my brain to figure out why, and I think the best I can do is work through a few of the commonalities among all the holy places I’ve seen.

The temple, the mosque, and the synagogue all emphasized their connections to the community and the multi-functionality of their buildings when we visited. In fact, at the mosque, the man we spoke to said “children come to play and then to pray,” suggesting that a multi-purpose building keeps the religion thriving. But at St. Paul’s our tour guide said that prior to the Great Fire, church had become “run down” because it was being used for multiple purposes (markets, dentist, etc), so the argument works in both directions and doesn’t really get us anywhere.

The temple, the mosque, and the synagogue speakers also took extreme pains to emphasize the bridging of religions, especially to Christianity. All three mentioned their interfaith programs between different religions, including the cathedrals (even though none of the chapels or cathedrals made any mention of the other faiths they were connected to and working with). The non-Christian religions also made special efforts to explain their religions in relation to Christianity, in some cases understating differences in favor of finding common ground. I know some people felt this was a defensive move and a watering down, but I understood it as an emphasis on bridging differences. The speakers expected a Christian audience, and each one mentioned Jesus as an important figure, even from Hinduism, which is a non-Abrahamic religion (it doesn’t come from the same branch as the other three). The best explanation I can think of for this is that Christianity, as the official dominant religion, even if it’s unofficially dying, can take itself for granted because of its connection to imperialism. All other faiths must places themselves in coordination with the colonizer, but the Church of England, as an official religion does not have a stake in getting along. It belongs here and need not please anyone else. (I’m speaking in terms of practicality. There are plenty of other more altruistic reasons for getting along.)

All four faiths also emphasize the importance of their religious history, the history of their specific holy building, and their place in it. Weirdly, this seemed to strengthen identity for some, and weaken it for others. Jewish history, as a group in diaspora, is such a uniting force that it allows for an entire Jewish culture and identity that complements the religion. Christian history seems to obscure it. Instead of learning about Christianity at the chapels and cathedrals, we treated it like a museum, viewing artifacts. I again want to attribute this to imperialism. Groups who live under the threat of obliteration hold their roots tighter. Even though the Protestants and Catholics have been intermittently persecuted, Christianity has been associated with England for quite a while, and England is not in danger of going anywhere.

I also noticed that all the non-Christian faiths emphasized the fact that they were not evangelical. While they aim to teach others about their faith, they do not actively convert, while active evangelism is an important part of Christianity (most orthodox sects). It seems like an interesting coincidence that England, an imperial nation that converts other nations to Englishness, would be attracted to a religion that converts followers (Ironically, the opposite seems to be happening). Christianity can easily be transformed into a tool for imperialism. Maybe that perversion coupled with the expectation that it will just always be there is what has caused its downfall.

Tags: 2010 Jesse

Am I allowed to laugh at the Barclay’s guys wearing top hats?

September 14th, 2010 · 4 Comments

Last night at Barclays Wealth was the first time I have ever been to an event where I was expected to mingle with rich, important people with one of my intention being to network for possible jobs (the other being to represent my school and my program, but I’ll get to that). I felt I was supposed to get dressed in formal clothing (painful shoes, scary make-up processes, scary hair frying devises) so I wouldn’t stick out as someone that didn’t care about the program, and it was kind of stressful. I recognize that a lot of people like dressing up, and that is great (they were super helpful and made it way less stressful). But I don’t like dressing up. I rarely dress up, and when I do, I’m really uncomfortable. I also have no idea how to network. I’m perfectly happy talking to strangers, but I don’t know what any of the social customs are for that particular type of event. The fact that I was wearing fancy, uncomfortable clothing leads me to believe that I am not expected to act like myself even though that is what I expect a person’s advice would be if I asked them directly. Otherwise I would being wearing normal clothes, the clothes I wear when I am expected to be myself. There are unwritten codes of conduct and a change in clothing and appearance denotes that those codes need to be enacted. I don’t think anyone could overtly tell me what those codes are because they are codes that you only learn through practice, and people that know them are unconscious of them because they seem natural.

This brings me to class. We’ve been spending all this time talking about how class in England is so weird because it’s based on habits and lifestyle choices when in America it’s mostly just a tax bracket thing. I really think we’ve been exaggerating this difference quite a bit. Class in America might be about tax brackets once you get there, but if you want to get rich, you probably need a sweet job, and if you want a sweet job, you probably need to be good at mingling with rich, important people. People from lower classes in the United States and in England alike do not get the same opportunities as the upper classes to practice mingling and all the social customs that go along with it (being comfortable in fancy clothes, which hand to hold your drink in, the best hand shake, how to politely find important people, what subjects are taboo, what jokes are okay, how coarse to get with language, how to gracefully enter and leave a conversation, how much criticism of society is acceptable and what part are off limits, how to show off without seeming like a jerk, etc.).

As a disclaimer, I’m not trying to paint myself as a victim and say that class limited me here. The fact that I’ve never had to look for a real job and that I just don’t like wearing fancy clothes limited me, but that is expected because I am young. But that experience of being really uncomfortable brings to my attention that there is a huge difference in social customs. Dickinson gave me this opportunity, and I’ll be better at it next time. What about people who just don’t get this opportunity in the first place?

For America, it’s the same thing we hear over and over again. The American Dream is a myth that propels itself by a handful of people who actually make it. People from lower classes have the deck stacked against them in more ways than one and the rich have just hte opposite. For England I think it’s a little more complicated, and I invite anyone to put their two cents in because I’m still trying to work it out myself. If England has a more rigid class system in which people take pride in their working class characteristics, how do they learn the social customs necessary to network and make more money? How can we even say that England has a rigid class system if Kate Fox says that middle classes have so much class insecurity that the use of bizarre upper class sounding, French terms are now characteristic of middle classness? If class in England is really not about money and success, is it the ends to some English equivalent to the American Dream?

Tags: 2010 Jesse

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. A**hole that yelled at me on Tottenham Court

September 12th, 2010 · 3 Comments

I’ve been fascinated by the effects of alcohol ever since I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in my freshman year, the same time I was introduced to college drinking social norms. By day students go to class and make self-aware, well thought out comments and criticisms of society, and by night drink and do all manner of scandalous things to gossip about in the morning (obviously not everyone, but a sizeable portion). We’ve been talk about the British social dis-ease, but I wonder if American social customs are really all that different.

Kate Fox notes that our expectations of alcohol’s effects are cultural rather than purely biological (261). England is known for its aggressive drunks and that expectation, and possibly a little national pride, is a self fulfilling prophecy. As the drunk insane asylum manager from everyone’s favorite show, Bedlam, says as he stumbles around the stage, “We’re English. It’s what we do” to which the audience responded with a proud cheer. For whatever reason, boisterous drunkness is a major source of identity for England, even if it’s also a symptom of the inability to socialize without a lubricant to put you in a liminal state. As a result, while Latin American countries associate alcohol with more peaceful states, England gets bars in Covent Square Garden that forbid the wearing of football colors to prevent bar fights.

I’ve tried to visit a few different types of pubs, and I’ve found so far that no matter the atmosphere, the clientele, or even the level of drunkenness, when it comes to alcohol the Brits are not the friendliest bunch (You see what I did there? Understatement. I’m so assimilated). I’ve managed to get over the occasional obvious refusals of service when pubs close at an oddly specific time if they see a group of five Americans coming toward them. The slightly more expensive pubs I’ve gone to have not been as bad. I usually just get a server who refuses to make any form of polite small talk or eye contact with me, unless he is joining in the group glare that I often receive from everyone in the room when I speak, stand in the wrong place, or exist. The younger, louder pubs were pretty nice because fewer people could hear my accent and it was too loud for me to hear angry throat clears. Unfortunately, the minute I got outside, a few drunk men took it upon themselves to fix that by yelling obscenities and telling me to go back to America (In their defense, I think I might have offended them when I was praising the benefits of Razor Scooters as they walked past. Hot button issue).

During the day, besides the occasional angry glare when I use my 6 inch voice instead of my 4 inch voice in the library, people have been generally friendly, which leads me to believe that Fox is right about the British extremes in behavior.  They’re excessively mild and polite (Jekyll) until they drink a potion that makes them grow fur on their hands and have a strong desire to beat me to death with a cane.

Tags: 2010 Jesse

English museums have secret awesome exhibits

September 6th, 2010 · 5 Comments

I visited the Tate Modern this week determined to disprove my growing suspicion that modern art is an Emperor’s New Clothes type hoax designed to make me look like an idiot. Unfortunately, the first time I visited I only had half an hour. So I rushed through a floor of splattered paint and a white room filled with off white canvases that, according to Agnes Martin, were supposed to represent “weightlessness and infinity” rather than the possibility that the museum staff had run out of white paint.

Then I came back a few days later when I had more time, and as luck would have it the first exhibit I came across was Art & Language by Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden with the promising description that “viewers are now confronted by themselves, thereby questioning a long-held notion of painting transcending reality.” I understand that some art is supposed to be philosophical, but it was a mirror on canvas, which makes it the exact equivalent of that scene in my favorite childhood movie, Neverending Story (costarring a delightful dragon puppet) in which the main character has to face himself in a metaphorical mirror to save the land of Fantasia. Obviously the best movie ever created, but not art. It made me angry.

So I went through the next few rooms with the mirror as a yardstick for my expectations and found the following pieces:

  1. Giuseppe Penone’s Tree in 12 Metres (two trees in a museum)
  2. Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Untitled (some guy’s messy garage in a museum)
  3. Keith Arnatt’s Self Burial (a bunch of pictures time elapsed pictures of a guy sinking in quick sand)


I list these pieces because they were really underwhelming until I looked at them a second time, and they turned into basically the coolest things ever. The Tree in 12 Metres was actually two perfect trees shapes carved out of a giant block of wood. Every messy garage item was a replica carved, textured and painted with polyurethane foam and acrylic paint (this includes an old rubber tire, an unvarnished wooden bench with knots, and a bunch of other distinctly textured items). The time elapsed photographs interrupted a TV program once a day in sequence showing for 5 seconds without any explanation.

Giuseppe Penone Tree of 12 Metres 1980-2

I’ve been seeing this pattern everywhere, and I feel like the British must have a huge penchant for Easter eggs. The Bloomsbury walk was covered in historical landmarks that I always thought were a huge deal. In the United States, Virginia Woolf’s house would at least be a small museum as opposed to the small plaque next to an otherwise occupied building. The Victoria and Albert Museum was a whole other level of hidden amazing things. Along with a novelty bustle that plays God Save the Queen every time the wearer sits down (classy), one of DaVinci’s notebooks, marked in tiny writing, was sitting in a random corner (The other five of his notebooks that the museum has are just in storage right now. No big deal). Do they just have so much history here that they have to ignore some of it so as not to turn the country into a museum? Or does that obsession with understatement that Kate Fox talks about seep itself all the way in British history so that they hide their great achievements in a corner out of amusement and feigned modesty? It seems so contradictory to what I would expect from a former empire. I expect neon signs. Not that I’m complaining. I don’t think I would get this excited about a foam tire replica under any other circumstances.

                                                                                                                                                                                          Tree of 12 Metres 

                                                                                                                                                                     (Giuseppe Penonoe) from Tate.org

Tags: 2010 Jesse

Welsh princess smirks at brother’s creepily painted hands

September 3rd, 2010 · No Comments

I tried to make a list of the different representation that I saw in the National Portrait Gallery, but it pretty quickly devolved into the terrifying-pasty-rich-people-with-deformed-hands section and then insane-facial-expression-with-no-explanation section. I assumed coming in that the paintings in the older section would all be rich white people, so I wasn’t actually as upset about the lack of diversity as I normally would have been. (I actually read on the plaque next to Elizabeth that while paleness was in fashion for some of the period, other pale skinned depictions could be attributed to the fact that the red paint used to color cheeks fades over time. This doesn’t really explain why there are no other races represented, but it does explain why everyone looked like they were characters in a Tim Burton film).

Most of the paintings I took an interest in were monarchs, artists’ self-portraits, or famous historical figures. The modern section was a lot more exciting to me because I could actually tell some of the faces apart. I especially liked Maggi Hambling’s self-portrait (the woman with three arms) and the sculpture of Richard Rogers by Paolozzi (the head with bolts going through it and a deformed eye) because I think weirdness naturally lends itself to art. I tried to spend more time in the old-rich-white-people section, though, because I don’t think I’ve ever really given them enough credit. They all have the same hair and creepy elongated claw fingers, but their facial expressions, gestures, and other objects that appeared in the picture were a lot more telling than the austere impressive gentleman paintings that I usually see in textbooks I gravitated toward the paintings of the women, and it seemed like behind their organ cruncher outfits, they had a sense of humor that went over the heads of other people in the paintings. The portrait of Selina Hastings depicts her holding her temple like she has a giant migraine and pursing her lips in such a way that she might be contemplative, or she might be about to roll her eyes.

The painting I finally chose was another example of what I felt was an understated bond between exasperated women. Frederick Prince of Wales and his Sisters by Philip Mercier (1733) depicts Prince Frederick playing his cello accompanied by two sisters playing piano and mandora and the other reading Milton.File:Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his sisters by Philip Mercier.jpg

(from wikimedia.org)

Frederick is wearing red so the viewer’s eye goes to him immediately. He’s really engrossed in the music, leaning forward and wide-eyed. Anne and Caroline (the two sisters playing instruments) both look mellow enough, but upon closer inspection a little bored. Amelia (on the right) is my favorite. She’s the only one that looks right at the viewer, leaning her face in her hand like a 9th grader during a biology lecture and she looks completely exasperated. Frederick has no clue.

I know I’m romanticizing it a bit, but everyone either romanticizes art or deconstructs it until it’s ugly. So I’m going to romanticize it. The women in many of the paintings I saw, especially this one, are posed in such a way that no one can accuse them of anything, but they are mocking society. They look just serious enough that the eye rolling is overlooked by anyone that isn’t in on the joke. It’s a subtle art that seems to appear in groups with less power of being able to say something without ever saying anything. That’s why I wasn’t irritated that there was really no diversity represented in this time period. I think some of the subjects of the paintings know it (yes, I know I’m stretching it a lot, but these exasperated women really were all over gallery). Art enthusiast everywhere speculate about Mona Lisa’s secret chalking it up to a love affair or contemplation about the universe, but I think it’s the recognition that someone is full of it.

Tags: 2010 Jesse

Assimilation in England

September 3rd, 2010 · No Comments

When discussing the sphinx of Taharqo at the British Museum, the Kushite king of Egypt, the narrator of A History of the World states that “it makes sense to keep using a language of control that everybody is accustom to accept.” This is in reference to the fact that during their reign in Egypt, the Kushites adopted Egyptian customs to appease the people they were controlling. In response, the Egyptians likewise attempted to absorb the Kushites into their own culture, “blandly calling the reign of the Kushite kings the 25th dynasty, thus quietly incorporating them into an unbroken story of an eternal Egypt.” It’s clear to me from this that naming something, the smallest thing – the ethnicity of an emperor, the description of a statue, the favorite food of a people – is away to secure power. Speakers in history will always maintain their superiority.

These strategic cultural “inclusions” smack of what Tarquin Hall points out of imperialism in Salaam: Brick Lane when Aktar states in frustration “you people are quite capable of making absolutely anything English if you choose to do so” (247). Imperial nations absorb parts of a culture they conquer to please the people, water it down, and spit it back out as only barely recognizable, a part of the empire. This is what I sense other people worried of Afro-Carribbean culture in their analyses of the Nottinghill Carnival, and possibly with good reason. What was once a celebration of culture could easily become a sort of spectacle for dominant groups. Maybe people come to the carnival to party rather than celebrate a culture. Maybe they come looking for something “authentic” and tokenize Afro-Caribbean culture rather than really respecting it.

I’ve been seeing this pattern all over England. There are curry shops everywhere. I’ve had more opportunity to buy it that than fish and chips. I keep seeing women on the Tube in head coverings, but otherwise wearing Western clothing, and I have to wonder if England and it’s vestiges of imperial culture are somehow swallowing other cultures as well. I see mixed race couples, and wonder what they call themselves since hybrid identities like Asian-American don’t really seem to exist in Britain the way they do back home.

I have always been taught that assimilation is a tool for silencing so marginalized groups can’t write their own history. In the United States, when someone tells you to speak English, straighten your hair, and embrace the American Dream, it really means your people are ugly and unimportant; pretend to belong and maybe we will tolerate you. But at the same time, the absorption of different cultures in England really could be a compromise. I haven’t heard any racial slurs yet. The fact that there is so much diversity and interracial mingling without conflict suggests that people don’t feel marginalized. Rather being coerced or having their customs forcibly erased, maybe new immigrant English consciously choose to adopt some dominant customs as a way to gain acceptance Maybe assimilation in this case is really the kind of cultural sharing that a society needs to operate peacefully. But my American instincts are still tell me to run before I start saying sorry every 5 seconds and can’t talk about money.

Tags: 2010 Jesse · Uncategorized