Exhibitions

Shows I’ve Curated Let Them Eat Cake (co-curator), UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum, September 16 – December 9, 2011. The Fiver: 5 Photographers, Blackbird Studios, September 2011. Spectacular, Erotic, and Slightly Shocking: A Timeline of American Burlesque, The Burlesque Hall of Fame, June 5, 2011 – Present Sereno: Paintings and Sculptire by KD Matheson, UNLV Marjorie [Continue reading]

Museum-ing with Dustin

Going on three months ago now, my life took a drastic turn (for the better!). After several years of struggling along as an adjunct professor and freelance writer (financially rewarding, creatively deadening…) I stumbled into a job as the registrar of the UNLV Barrick Museum. Having worked in museums before, done a fellowship at the [Continue reading]

Drawn in the Dust

UNLV Barrick Museum. October 22 – December 10, 2010 Curated by Dustin M. Wax Drawn in the Dust brings together original artwork by Las Vegas comic book artists, exploring both the connections between them and the diversity of styles and expressions among local sequential artists. Including work ranging from intensely person…al, self-published comic books to [Continue reading]

Academic Portfolio

Exhibitions Drawn in the Dust, UNLV Barrick Museum, Oct 22 – Dec 10, 2010. Exhibition of work by Las Vegas comic book artists. Frida Kahlo’s Mexicanidad, UNLV Barrick Museum, Oct 27 – Dec 18, 2010. Selection of pre-Hispanic and modern materials to accompany the Mexican Consulate-curated exhibition “Viva Frida!” Teaching Statement of Teaching Philosophy Teaching [Continue reading]

Chasing the Cluetrain

A long, long time ago (February ’01, as a matter of fact), a member of the anthro-l listserv mentioned the then-new Cluetrain Manifesto (see the list’s archives for a look at the original context in which it came up). I glanced at the website , but didn’t have much of a response at the time. Since then, I’ve become a regular reader of Doc Searls ‘ and David Weinberger ‘s personal sites, linking to and being linked to by them. But though I’ve read through the “Manifesto” proper (95 theses, to which the book is exposition), I had never read the book itself. Then, as I was waiting for some work to be done on my car, I stepped into a remaindered-book shop, and snagged a copy for 5 bones. It turned out to be a pretty quick read, and I think I’m finally ready to answer the question posed on that listserv 2 1/2 years ago. Better late than never, I hope.

Although its authors are not, in any way I can discern, marxists, their analysis probably won’t strike anyone familiar with Marx’ work as unusual. The rise of industrialisation, and especially mass production, was accompanied (maybe accomplished) by the development of a business-consumer relationship in which businesses relied on consumers as passive endpoints in a one-way, controlled transfer of goods, services, and information. This is most aptly illustrated by the example of Ford’s Model T “in any color you want so long as it’s black”–and again by mass media’s preferred model of interaction, with viewers or listeners as passive consumers of “content”, shoved down a pipeline from corporate HQ to your living room.

Though the market has, in some crucial ways, changed–fractionalization into “niche markets”, the incorporation and exploitation of minors as consumers, etc.– this model of business-consumer relationship has continued to dominate commerce. “Content producers”, as record labels and movie studios like to call themselves nowadays, scramble to maintain this one-way flow of product by introducing “innovations”–copy protection, encryption, digital rights management–that dictate how, where, and when their products can be used. Hardware manufacturers wrap their products in anti-reverse engineering licenses, and file suits against their products’ users to prevent their products being used in “unauthorized” ways, such as hacking an X-Box to run GNU/Linux. Auto manufacturers obscure the diagnostic codes generated by the microchips on which modern engine performance depends, so that drivers are prevented from modifying their own vehicles, as well as being forced to use only the maintenance sites chosen for them by the manufacturer. Customer service is routed through layers upon layers of voice mail menus and unknowledgeable (but cheap) techs in order to get answers to questions that should be clearly explained in products’ user manuals.

And then there’s the ads. As Cluetrain’s authors point out, there’s no demand for advertising. Advertisers absolutely know this. They intentionally seek out “captive audiences”–people who literally cannot get away. If I want to see the newest hit movie, I have to show up 20 minutes to get and keep a seat. And these days, that means watching ” The 2wenty “, 20 minutes of commercials splashed onto the big screen and pumped through the Dolby sound systems. Should I decide my time might be better used, say, taking a leak, I find an ad posted conveniently at eye level above the urinal. Maybe I give up and leave. I hail a cab, only to find myself face-to-face with a video screen showing, what else, ads. Frazzled, I tell the driver to pull over, pay, and get out. I decide to buy a pack of cigarettes at the bodega on the corner, and while waiting in line, I find myself facing another digital monitor playing out ads. Screw it, I say, and walk across the street to the Best Buy to buy the album whose hit single was embedded on a CD into the lid of my soda at the movie theater. While waiting in line to check out, yet another TV murmurs seductively of all the other Best Buy products I could be buying. I could go home, but there will just be ads on my answering machine I’ll have to listen to just in case one of the messages is from somebody I actually know and my inbox will be filled with ads I’ll have to at least glance at in case one or two e-mails are actually from humans. And so on.

The ad folks know–because they are, after all, people much like me–that there’s no way I would willingly watch or listen to all those ads. That’s why they’re paid good money to find out what things I would willingly do, and make sure that wherever I go to do them, there’s an ad. Or two. Or ten. The businesses that hire the ad folks know this, too, or they wouldn’t hire the ad folks in the first place. But while I can allow myself the luxury of thinking of ad folks and their employers as humans more or less like me, they can’t afford the luxury of returning the favor. To them, I am and must remain, like you, “a consumer”, an always-open, ever-ravenous mouth at the end of a pipeline that exists only for them to fill with product for me to consume.

The immense effort businesses expend–advertising, PR, legal wrangling, political favor-buying, and so on–to maintain this relationship betrays its ultimate falsity. While corporate production has expanded since the dawn of the Industrial era to encompass almost the entirety of commercial life, customers (not consumers) have evolved ways of evading their role as mere consumers. Before industrialization wiped out the craftsperson and artisan (for everyone except the very rich), customers learned about products by talking to the person who made or grew them; with the replacement of local manufacture by distant (both geographically and psychologically) corporations, would-be customers learned to talk to their friends and family about those products–and not the companies that made them. This process has slowly accelerated and spread out, as new technologies and new social relationships enlarged the possible circle within which these conversations could take place, reaching a fever pitch with the wide availability and easy accessibility of the Internet that has become possible over the last decade. Few people rely solely on corporate sources for information about products they are interested in–not when Usenet groups, discussion forums, and opinion aggregate sites like epinions.com and amazon.com can connect them with the opinions of people like them who actually use those products. Likewise with support: a new computer user finds out pretty quickly that his/her problem can be answered far more quickly–and far more surely–by other users than by the company that made their computer or operating system; the manufacturer may not even admit that the problem exists, let alone tell you how to fix it. Some companies may not even *allow* you to fix it! And if, god forbid, you actually want to use a product in a way not officially authorized by its manufacturer, you certainly won’t find advice on its website or from tech support–but you will probably find other people who have thought of the same thing you have, and figured out how to do it. And will tell you how, too. For free.

While the corporations have been fine-tuning their one-way delivery channels and treating customers as consumers, the people who buy and use products have been having conversations with each other, sometimes about those products, but more often about the lives in which those products play a role. Companies know this, but have so far spent their resources paying “trendspotters” to eavesdrop on these conversations and report back to the corporations, where conversations are turned into marketing materials and pushed back through the product pipeline. The thing is, while companies pursue business as usual, customers are moving on, a process greatly accelerated by the advent of the Web and its infinite possibilities for conversation. Tired of waiting for the features they wanted from a commercial computer operating system, hackers–most of them strangers to each other, united only by Usenet, e-mail, and hypertext–sat down and, for the sheer pleasure of it, made GNU/Linux, an industry-grade operating system that runs a goodly portion of the Internet these days and has Microsoft and SCO (a maker of Unix, on which Linux is based) running scared, often in a blind panic. Tired of watching great musicians struggle to be heard while the latest focus-grouped pop “idol” is shoved at us through every available channel, file-traders started opening up their collections of bootleg and official recordings over the web, offering listeners a chance to hear the music that either was not available through traditional corporate channels or whose value was not yet established. While big music companies were intensifying their efforts to control how and where their music was being listened to (you don’t “buy” music anymore, you “license” it these days), independents were growing by leaps and bounds by giving music away. Likewise in publishing–as publishers slowly began to offer a handful of fake bestsellers as overpriced “e-books”, newsgroups were flooded with quality scans of the books people really wanted to read, in formats suitable to their palm-pilots or pocket pcs, for free. While publishers spent their time and money cracking down on this trade in text, Baen publishing began giving away its e-books–and saw sales of hard copies skyrocket! While company after company tried to turn the ‘Net into an extension of their one-way pipeline and failed, eBay made a profit from its first sale, by making it easier for people to find and deal directly with other people who had products they wanted, making it easier to complete your shopping list of 10 items from 10 different merchants than trying to find the online version of the brick-and-mortar outlet who could meet even half of the list. Cheaper, too.

Cluetrain boils down to three fundamental principles: conversation, voice, and craft. Humans talk to each other–that’s what we do and what we are; corporations, more often than not, just get in the way of that. Humans speak with a human voice, and are instantly recognizable; corporations, more often than not, speak with a recognizably inhuman voice, and are being increasingly ignored. Humans make things and share them; corporations employ people to make tiny parts of things, and then “distribute” them. People–customers–want to talk to other people about the things that really interest them; corporations want to talk to consumers about only those things they feel necessary to secure a sale. There’s a huge gap there. The thing is, corporations need customers if they are going to survive; customers don’t need corporations. At all.

Cluetrain is not, in essence, anything new. It seems new because it’s about the Internet, whose growing role in our day-to-day lives is new, but it is basically the same thing Edward Sapir wrote in his 1924 essay “Culture, Genuine and Spurious”. It’s opposition of a face-to-face, conversation-driven society against the alienated, disaggregated world of corporate mass production has been a standard in anthropology and sociology, rooted in Durkheim ‘s work at the turn of the 20th century and perhaps most forcefully expressed in Robert Redfield’s work of the ’30s and ’40s. What is new is the scope of possibility for such conversations opened up by the Internet. While we cannot (yet) speak “face-to-face” over the Internet with any regularity, we can and do speak honestly, openly, and in our own “voice”, sometimes with hundreds, sometimes with thousands, and occasionally with hundreds of thousands and even millions. What’s more, we do so at our own pace, not the Taylorist pace of the corporate clock, the Internet allowing us to dip in and out of conversations at our leisure as well as to “surf” other conversations that we might not even take part in.

The Cluetrain Manifesto is essentially optimistic about all the possibilities the Internet opens up, but it is important to realize that the battle is hardly won, that customers and employees are still, by and large, unempowered, and that the openness of the Internet has been maintained so far more by a lack of understanding on the part of business than by any inherent strength of the Internet itself ( World of Ends notwithstanding). As many people are beginning to understand, the Internet represents a “commons” comparable to the uncontrolled pastureland of England several centuries ago, and like those commons, our commons can conceivably, and probably fairly easily, be “enclosed” by the “owners”. But enclosure in Britain set off centuries of struggle and revolt, and with their four-quarter fiscal year planning horizon, I don’t see corporations being able to afford that sort of protracted struggle. As long as our society maintains even the marginally free market we have today (as much as that freedom has been attenuated by deregulation, monopoly capital, corporate merger, economic liberalization, tort reform and damage caps, and most of the other workings of the current corporate dominance), there is likely to always be someone willing to open up a space for human occupation. Since our commons are, unlike the British pasturelands, infinitely extensible, a small opening is all we really need to build a commons as large as our society.

And that’s what I’m really talking about here. As much as Cluetrain Manifesto is oriented to marketeers and corporate management, as much as its examples are drawn from the business world, it’s not really about the working of the market at all, but about the workings of society. This is especially clear in the success, so far, of Howard Dean’s campaign (which employs one of the Cluetrain authors) is energizing and mobilizing a significant body of people traditionally considered outside the political mainstream. I’m not talking about radicals, here, I’m talking about the ordinary people whose place in political life has heretofore been seen by the major parties as “voters”, in the same way that corporations view them as “consumers”. While the more traditional campaigns deploy their fluffers to stroke corporate contributors for big wads of campaign cash (with strings attached, of course), Dean’s campaign has raised more money, faster, from tiny donations given by readers of his campaign’s blog , by attendees at Internet-organized “meetups”, by recipients of forwarded newsletters and participants in listserv conversations, by instantly-empowered websurfers visiting his campaign site where individual donations are two clicks away (instead of 4 on Lieberman’s site –and you have to know that donations are in the “Get Involved” section). Listen to the difference in voice between the two men’s campaign sites (taken from the topmost article on the front page of each site):

Our campaign is about bringing people together. Every day more and more people are coming together to restore our communities and our nation’s traditional role as an idealistic moral force in the world. Over 262,000 Americans have signed up for our grassroots campaign, and you can join them by clicking here: http://www.deanforamerica.com/signup

Joe Lieberman’s campaign today launched a new website http://www.JoesJobsTour.com — highlighting his ongoing “Joe’s Jobs Tour” across the United States. The site features a map of Lieberman’s tour stops, a state-by-state listing of the 3.1 million jobs lost under George Bush, photos from the trail, and Lieberman’s proposals for getting back the jobs lost under George Bush and creating new jobs.

It’s clear which of these sites is inviting us to join the conversation, and which is pushing pre-packaged information at us. What Cluetrain recognizes is that we are individual human actors who want to live connected lives in a humanized world, not interchangeable, passive consumers, workers, or voters noticeable only for our contribution to aggregate statistics. We don’t want to be sold to or campaigned to, we want to be spoken with. Cluetrain presents not just a picture of business for corporations to try to emulate, but a vision of society in which alienation and apartness are overcome and conversation, voice, and craft assume (reassume?) their proper [Continue reading]

A Minor Inconvenience

Yesterday I had an unusual experience. I picked up a paycheck for some convention work I had done last week, meeting people at the airport and directing them to a shuttle to their hotel. The check was for $150 and was drawn on Bank of America. As I don’t have a bank account at present (like some 10 million American families) I took the check to a Bof A branch to cash.

The transaction wnet pretty well as expected–sign the back, show my driver’s license, produce a second piece of ID, watch the teller write all my personal information on the back of the check, fingerprint the check…. In other words, I was treated as the criminal we’ve all learned to expect to be treated as. But then, something happened that I was totally unprepared for. The teller informed me that, as my employer did not have an “agreement” with BofA, I would be charged $5.00 for the privilege of having them honor a check drawn on one of their own accounts! “Excuse me?” I said, baffled. “Would you like to take the check somewhere else?” she asked. As if there was anywhere else–no other bank would chash a check drawn on a BofA account unless I had an account with them, plus the check was already endorsed and marked up with all my personal information. “I don’t have much of a choice”, I told her, “although $5.00, that’s almost 4%, I could go to a check-cashing place for less.” “That’s our policy, I’m sorry”, she told me, continuing “If your employer had an agreement with us…”.

“They shouldn’t need ‘an agreement’,” I replied, a little angry at this point. Calming down, I continued, “Look, I understand that it’s not your choice, but your policy sucks. And I’d appreciate it if you’d tell your boss someone said that, when you get a chance.”

Essentially, BofA–one of the biggest banks in the US, stole $5.00 from me. Had I deposited the check in my bank account, or signed the check over to a friend or relative and had them cash it at their bank, or (this occured to me later) taken the check to a casino and cashed it, they wouldn’t have charged my bank, or my friend’s bank, or the casino $5.00 for the basic act of meeting their obligation to fulfill the check. The fee was one thing and one thing only, a penalty for being a) too poor to have a bank account, and b) only one person against the arbitrary and immense power of the BofA establishment.

Security expert Bruce Schneier has written about this trend in American business practice in a recent article entitled How to Fight. Schneier describes the increasingly invasive and often useless, even counter-productive, practices that corporations are adopting in the name of “security”: requiring a photocopy of your driver’s license to check into a hotel (a security risk for the hotel’s guest), creating patient profiles with all sorts of non-medical information before a pharmacy will fill a prescription, and so on. “In the end,” he writes,

all security is a negotiation among affected players: governments, industries, companies, organizations, individuals, etc. The players get to decide what security they want, and what they’re willing to trade off in order to get it. But it sometimes seems that we as individuals are not part of that negotiation. Security is more something that is done to us….

[But t]here’s no parity, because those who implement the security have no interest in changing it and no power to do so. They’re not the ones who control the security system; it’s best to think of them as nearly mindless robots. (The security system relies on them behaving this way, replacing the flexibility and adaptability of human judgment with a three-ring binder of “best practices” and procedures.)

I’m certain BofA stole that money from me under the guise of “security”, thinking that it somehow protects them against counterfeit payroll checks or whatever. Essentially they did it because they can, because they are bigger than me and there is little I can do about it.

Of course, I’ll write a letter to someone at BofA complaining, and I won’t be banking with BofA when I finally do open a bank account. (“If you would like to open an account with us,” she said, “there would be no fee.” To which I replied, simply, “That’s not going to happen.”) And I’ll talk to my employer–maybe they’ll decide to move their payroll (it’s a pretty big company, business I assume BofA would prefer not to lose), but I doubt it. Too much hassle, and how many of their employees don’t have bank accounts? Bottom line is, as much as I protest, I’ll lose this fight.

But maybe, just maybe, I’ll kick up some noise, joining the chorus of other folks making noise, adding a tiny little bit to the dissonant orchestra of dissent out there. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll gum up the works a [Continue reading]

Road Trip

Life is finally starting to fall back into some sort of rhythm. A couple of weeks ago, pressing financial issues and a, shall we say, lack of immediate prospects, forced me into abandoning the Iowa phase of my dissertation research and moving to Las Vegas, where my family lives and where a room was waiting for me until I get my affairs back into order. Although I wasn’t relishing the idea of yet again packing up all my crap, giving up what tentative roots I had established in yet another town (I’ve lived in 5 different cities over the last 12 months), and all the attendant heartache that accompanies a move, there was one thing I was looking forward to: the drive.

I love driving cross-country, even (maybe especially) alone. Chalk it up to one too many Jack Kerouac novels during my formative years, too many half-ironic listens to truck-driving songs, or even a wholesale buy-in to the Great American Dream of infinite mobility–whatever the reason, I love it. I plotted out a three-day, 1800-mile route. I could have shaved a couple of hours by hopping on I-80 and speeding down the Boredom Corridor to I-15 and hanging a left, but there were a few things I wanted to see on the way which led me into some interesting detours.

More importantly, I wanted to avoid I-80 as much as possible, at least in the Midwest. Look: I grew up in Nebraska. Every time I tell someone that, I get the same response: “I drove through Nebraska once, what a boring state.” It’s a lie. You haven’t driven through Nebraska, you’ve driven down I-80. Except around Omaha, you never came closer than 5 miles to anywhere people even live. And you certainly haven’t seen this:

Carhenge. The product of Jim Reinder’s strange and wonderful imagination. Constructed of vintage automobiles sunk into the ground or welded in place, Carhenge was intended as a memorial to Reinder’s father and constructed with the help of 35 relatives on the fifth anniversary of the elder Reinder’s death. A number of other pieces have sprung up around Carhenge, by Reinders and others, creating the Car Art Preserve, a testimony to both the sacred place the car holds in our American culture and to the strange attraction of “elsewhere” that have drawn people to and through the West since the time of Lewis and Clark. Another sculpture–a mid-70s station wagon with arced ribs welded on reminiscent of the ribs of a Conestoga wagon–drives this point home more forcefully: we Americans, for better and for worse (ask the nearest Indian how s/he feels about the whole thing) are a moving people.

Through Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming (where, alas, it designates a stretch of I-80) I stuck, for the most part, to the old Lincoln Highway, Hwy. 30 (the detour to Alliance and then through Mitchell Pass notwithstanding). Lincoln Highway is another testimony to Americans’ restlessness. The brainchild of Carl Fisher, founder of the Indianapolis 500, the Lincoln Highway became on its completion in 1915 the first coast-to-coast road, a ribbon of graded gravel stretching from New York to San Francisco. Fisher came up with an intriguing method of funding the project, getting each community along the route to provide the labor and asking to auto manufacturer to donate 1% of their revenues for materials. (Henry Ford held out, for an interesting reason, especially in these times of Free Market BS: if private industry funded the construction of improved roads, the public would never learn to demand that the government provide them.) In the Midwest, Hwy. 30 roughly follows the Platte River, running about 5 miles north of I-80 through much of the state. But what a difference those few miles distance make. On I-80, the closest you come to Nebraska is the gas stations huddled around the interchanges; the cities, towns, and grain depots of Nebraska are along the Lincoln Highway. Yes, this means the occasional stoplight or 35-mph zone–and, as a 2-lane the maximum speed limit is 65 mph, as opposed to 75 on the Interstate–but it also means a chance to see people actually living their lives. Plus, virtually no traffic.

At Oglalla, NE, I headed north en route to Alliance and the aforementioned Carhenge, then back south to Hwy 26, which travels past the great Nebraskan landmarks, Chimney Rock, Jailhouse and Courthouse Rocks, and finally Scott’s Bluff, a great barrier of rock bisected by Mitchell Pass.

Mitchell Pass

Through this “V” of rock passed the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails–the Hwy. 30s of the 19th century. Travel peaked in the years just before 1849–as Mormons made their way to Deseret (present-day Utah) and away from persecution back East–and just after–as a somewhat less morally-guided folk made their way to the gold fields of California to seek their fortunes.

From Mitchell Pass to Cheyenne, with a special project in mind. Almost a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather, Lewis (from whom I take part of my Hebrew name), arrived on these shores from Warsaw. After a short stint in a furniture factory in Alabama, he headed out to Denver where his brother was working. Together the two of them travelled a circular route out of Denver, through Cheyenne, and back, collecting salvage for the railroad. When a hardware-store owner in Cheyenne decided to sell out his shop, the two bought it, and my great-grandfather brought his wife and 6-year-old son, my grandfather, over to join him in Cheyenne. During the years when Cheyenne was transforming from a railroad boom-town (“the richest little city in the West”, according to tourist literature I picked up in town) to a military boom-town (with POW camps for both Germans and Japanese in WWII, and later a virtual fortress of missile silos), my grandfather ran a furniture store, his brother a Western-wear store (with other family members moving on to Denver).

Cheyenne also has one of the best-preserved historical districts in the West (centred around the street where my grandfather and great-uncle owned their stores), and I decided to swing through and take some pictures of this geography where my father spent his formative years (I’d been there before, when I was about 10, but of course in the absence of Mickey Mouse rides, I wasn’t impressed). I stopped in at both the tourist information bureau and the chamber of commerce and they told me about old Cheyenne and the tight-knit Jewish community that once thrived there. (The gentleman at the chamber of commerce gave me a small indication of why the Jewish community might have found other locales more to their liking when he told me sadly that “you people” used to be great merchants, but don’t do what we are so good at much anymore.) Turned out that my grandfather’s building was only a few doors down from the tourist bureau (alas, the original facade was covered in a sad ’70s attempt at “modern” style) and my great-uncle’s store was just across a small park from the chamber of commerce (alas, torn down). The chamber of commerce itself is in a grand old building, the “Tivoli”:

The Tivoli

Interestingly, the upper floors of the Tivoli used to be a brothel, back in the days before the military forced the city to clamp down on gambling and prostitution (much of which, according to my father, moved out to a then-nascent Las Vegas). Seems appropriate in a way…

From Cheyenne I had no choice but I-80, climbing steadily to the Continental Divide at 7,000 feet, after which the road levels out somewhat until, somehow, one reaches the Continental Divide at 6,400 feet. I’m still a little perplexed about the whole thing. Anyway, from there it’s a beautiful long drop into the Great Basin, bringing me into Salt Lake City. I’ve been trying to put together another post on Mormons, essentially exploring the way difference functions in the context of modern American society, but it hasn’t quite gelled, somehow. Deeper philosophical differences aside, I wanted to see Temple Square, which was nice, and an almost overbearingly helpful guide directed me to the top of the Joseph Smith building for a great view:

Mormon Temple

One notable thing about Salt Lake City is that it has some of the worst traffic I’ve ever endured on the freeway (I-15, now): miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic in the middle of the afternoon. From SLC to the border, I-15 follows some of the least splendid terrain in the state. Last year, I took I-76 from Denver into Utah, which travels through incredible mesas–real Road Runner and Coyote territory–but I-15 doesn’t really take off until you cross the border into Arizona, shooting down Virgin River Canyon (I think that’s the name) until you reach the flat plain north of Vegas.

Virgin River Canyon

And a couple hours later, I crawl, stiffly, out of the driver’s seat. The next day, my muffler fell [Continue reading]

Between a Job and a Third Place

I have a strong interest in ideas of space and place. Whether it’s the use of places as sites of memory and memorialization, the construction of spaces for expression and community, or the mapping of different sorts of activities onto the social landscape, my interest is always sparked by the ways people think of and use physical and metaphorical space.
[Continue reading]

Between a Job and a Third Place

I have a strong interest in ideas of space and place. Whether it’s the use of places as sites of memory and memorialization, the construction of spaces for expression and community, or the mapping of different sorts of activities onto the social landscape, my interest is always sparked by the ways people think of and use physical and metaphorical space.

So a couple of posts about “third places” caught my attention. The first is a definition and short historical examination of the third place in American life; the second, a contribution to the current buzz about Starbucks’ policy on photography inside their stores. In the first, we learn of the basis and post-War decline of third places, while the second describes Starbucks’ conscious effort to craft new third places appropriate to the demands of the ’90s.

So what’s a third place? The rise of industrialized labour (including the service sector) over the course of the 19th century was paralleled by a new focus on the division of space into public and private spheres. Against the pressures of the “public” world of politics and commerce, the family and home were constructed as an asylum of sorts, a place where even the lowliest working man and we are speaking here, for the most part, of men, despite the large numbers of women in the workforce) could escape the dramas of workaday life. Likewise, the home as a site of consumption was opposed to the workplace as site of production: at home, a man was free to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

This geography of social life was felt across the board, in domains as diverse as the development of modern art (e.g. the turn from massive, celebratory historical or mythological scenes to more appropriately-sized images drawn from the world familiar to an urban peit bourgeoisie), political economy (a common critique of Marx’s work is that his view of economics ends at the threshold of the home, and so ignores the contribution that women’s free domestic labour contributed to lowering the costs of the reproduction of labour), the characterization of women as consumers and men as producers (even as women and children toiled away in the mills of the North East, the sweatshops of the urban centers, and the farms of the rural hinterlands), and so on. It is not too much of stretch to say that the multiply inflected opposition between public and private lies at the core of the modern Western worldview–consider our efforts to legitimize what goes on between consenting adults “behind closed doors”.

Third places were spaces in which the conceptually separate worlds of public and private were mediated. For instance, while complaining about unfair labour practices at work could get one fired, and complaining at home might get you sympathy but rarely any satisfactory understanding, the local pub offered a place for workers to share their complaints without fear of management repercussions. Pubs, cafes, restaurants, social clubs, parks, shopping centers (such as the famous Parisian Arcades), museums, even department stores became consciously seen as spaces for sociability, more inclusive than the confines of the home but free of the pressures of the workplace. Partaking of equal parts commerce (networking, deal-making, job-tip-seeking, and other economic activities thrive in third places), politics (Marx’ International met in a pub just south of the British Museum; Hitler’s putsch was launched from a Munich Biergarten, Jewish immigrant socialism thrived in the cafes of the Lower East Side), and a highly constructed privacy (maintained as often through attitude and discretion as through physical barriers). third places provided an outlet ofr expression that neither the workplace or the home could produce.

It is no overstatement to say that the third place has virtually disappeared from American life in the wake of WWII. The rise of suburbs and the interstate beltways ahve moved our homes ever-further from our workplaces and scattered our coworkers–the people that we are most likely to know well–across wide swaths of suburban geography. Americans are often surprised when visiting Europe at the great deal of activity in pubs, cafes, and other public spaces–the piazzas of Italy, the Biergartens of Germany, the British locals. Seeing a family, complete with toddlers, socializing in a smoky pub in Aberystwyth was one of my more surreal moments abroad, running deeply counter to my conceptions of public space. Europeans, on the other hand, often find American bar culture to be highly suprficial, over-eroticized, and asocial.

Over the last decade, however, Americans have seen the rise of new kinds of third places. The Internet has probably been the most significant force in the creation of new spaces for expression and sociability, despite the questions of identity and security that have accompanied its penetration into American consciousness. But the Internet cannot completely fill this apparent need for social interaction. One important factor of third places is their local-ness, their ability to focus on local concerns and identities, and the Internet has, so far, been very lacking in addressing local concerns.

The late ’80s began to see an upsurge in coffee houses, wine bars, brew pubs, and other post-Yuppie third places. At the same time, marketeers began more consciously exploiting the sociality of such places as part of corporate branding efforts. Among the most successful of these establishments was Starbucks, at the same time fueling and exploiting a newly-developed taste for gourmet specialty coffees. ALthough a number of factors played into Starbucks’ success–most notably the disaggregation of the American mass market into an ever-multiplying array of micro-niche markets), among them is their self-conscious efforts at creating third places where coffee-drinking would provide the focus for social existence.

Of course, its a different social existence than that of the local pub in Wales. Starbucks is, first and foremost, a professional’s third place. By virtue of price, design, and location, Starbucks makes it’s audience clear. What’s more, Starbucks is a space for small groups of such people, or solitary people. I once had a housemate who would go to Starbucks to write poetry, apparently drawn by its literary atmosphere. It is unlikely that the next revolution will start in a Starbucks.

But the attempt to capture “third place-ness” as part of a corporate brand is a risky one, and as Brian of Op/Edit (home to the second post mentioned above) points out, the demands of corporate existence are often at odds with the social needs of a third place. A long-time Starbucks employee, Brian describes the origins of managers’ restrictions on in-store photography as a means to combat corporate espionage at a time when the third-placiization of Starbucks was a relatively new and shaky premise. Starbucks has been highly successful in this effort, however, and now managers’ attacks on photographers mainly hamper the fairly widespread social behaviour of taking snapshots of your friends. Corporate concerns demand that Starbucks control the use of its branded space, a demand that is ultimately opposed to the needs of a third place.

I am not about to predict the imminent demise of Starbucks–Americans have shown time and again their willingness to adapt to the social controls of corporatized space, and I doubt that, some miscreants aside, much will come of efforts to subvert Starbucks’ [Continue reading]

“Brother, Friend, Comrade”: The Workman’s Circle and Jewish Culture, 1900-1930

Essay written by: Dustin M. Wax

We believe that misdeeds, injustice, falsehood, and murder will not reign forever, and a bright day will come when the sun will appear.

We believe there is hope for mankind; the peoples of the world will not destroy each other for a piece of land, and blood will not be shed
for silly prestige. We believe men will not die of hunger, and wealth not created by its own labor will disappear like [Continue reading]