Re: race in commercials
Vance Geiger (geiger@PEGASUS.CC.UCF.EDU)
Sun, 10 Dec 1995 11:47:44 -0500
There is currently a sponsored debate in the Anthropology
Newsletter on whether Anthropology is, or is not, can, or cannot
be, a science. I find that aspects of this debate have relevence
to some of the discussion on anthro-l, especially those regarding
race, wither anthropology and racism in commercials. In
addition, in an earlier post John McCreery asked if there were
any demonstrable results or findings to be had from post-
modernism (or something to that effect). Hence a rather long
post (in the Fossian tradition though without the eloquence and
First a little background:
One of the interesting articles on Anthropology as a science or
scientifically challenged was by Roy D'Andrade.
Roy G. D'Andrade (D'Andrade, Anthropology Newsletter, October
1995) asks us as anthropologists, what do we think we are doing?
The point being if we are not doing science then what are we
doing? D'Andrade asserts that science is:
1) trying to find out about the world by making observations
2) checking to see if those observations are reliable
3) developing a general model or accout that explains these
4) checking this model or account against new observations
5) comparing it to other models to see which model fits the
observations best (D'Andrade, Anthropology Newsletter, October
All well and whatever. D'Andrade goes on....
According to Roy D'Andrade, "anthropology without science is not
much: a small but interesting sampling of the humanities;
embarrassing stories about the "real great political adventures
of me"; some heartfelt moral denunciations and a large corpus of
evocative but unverifiable interpretations" (D'Andrade, 1995:4).
What D'Andrade fails to realize, is that much of anthropology has
been, is and will always be "the real great adventures of me"
with or without the science. Why is this?
The essential distinguishing characteristic of anthropology has
been and continues to be the doing of fieldwork. Fieldwork is
the requirement that an individual go out to the frontier and
collect specialized knowledge that they then return and share as
stories through dissertations, ethnographies and monographs of
one sort or another.
What D'Andrade completely fails to appreciate is that the form of
the story that the science comes wrapped in is as important as
the content. This is what post-modernism is about as near as I
can tell and there is a point to it. Unfortunately, as we can
see, the issues here for anthropologists are very close to home.
Now, a little more background...
D'Andrade argues in his AN article that science requires
2) checking to see if those observations are reliable
3) developing a general model or accout that explains these
Now suppose that there is a social science fact (oh, facts
again!) that is replicable, that can be tested. Further suppose
that this "fact" explains observations. Now, go even further and
suppose that this is a post-modernistic fact such as the forms
stories take are as, if not more, important than the content.
Well, we have such a fact.
The influence of the frontier myth in the stories we tell, in the
way we seek a voice, a standing in discussions on important
issues, the way we create knowledge and what information counts
as something known, is pervasive.
What is this myth?
During our formative period as a nation, the period during which
our national mythology coalesced, America was a frontier nation.
We talked to ourselves about conquering territory and the
inhabitants of that territory (the ideas below owe much to
Richard Slotkin, 1992 and John Hellman, 1986). We talked about
the characteristics needed by hardy pioneers to conquer and
civilize the wilderness, and the wild savages that lived there.
We painted the civilizer white, made it a male, put it on a
horse, and put a ten-gallon hat on its head, gave it a six-gun
and the knowledge and skill to use it well, and sent the
civilizer out to do battle with the primitive and the savage. We
sent the civilizer out to learn the ways of the primitive, to
develop the capability to turn the primitive against itself in
pursuit of the higher purpose of civilizing.
We painted civilization white as well, but we made it a female,
put it in a wagon or a logwood cabin, and put a bonnet on its
head, surrounded it with children, gave it a bible and a speller
and the knowledge and skill to use them well. Civilization
followed the civilizer, with out-stretched arms and a waiting
kiss, to redeem, to regenerate, to give purpose to the set-jaw,
steely-eyed, reluctant descent into savagery.
In its extreme version the myth of the frontier, the myth of
regeneration through regression, regeneration through violence,
is the myth of the individual. The individual, the one who can
save us from our own tendency to over-conform, to over-determine
our future. He can save us from the weakness borne of
satisfaction, of contentment, of compromise in the service of a
peace too easily gained and vulnerable to savagery. There is in
our myth, the ultimate individual, the man with no name. He
comes, he does savage war in the cause of the "little people" in
the cause of civilization. He has no family, no ties, no one to
conform too, only his own individual principles to guide him,
principles instilled in his white cloaked genes, a genetic
tendency to serve civilization. He takes nothing for his service,
his sacrifice, his self-chosen role as the interlocutor between
the savage and the civilized, his solitary life in-between. He
comes, he acts, and we never even get to say thank you.
His violence in the service of civilization makes manifest the
rightness, the purity, of his principles. He brings contingency
to the contingent, the primitive, the savage, nature in the raw
as the sprawling wilderness shielding its minions, the savages,
afoot and on horseback, dusky and barely discernible from the
primitive landscape itself. He is a buffer, and a constant
reminder of what life is like on the "other" side, what we must
remain strong enough to resist. He is that ephemeral gray area
between order and chaos, knowing both, order through his genes,
chaos through experience. He is the constant reminder of what we
must be capable of if we are to resist the "active evil" of the
primitive, that which would come to take, to kidnap women and
children, that which would come with tooth and claw, with bow and
arrow, to snatch civilization away.
Belief in him is in many ways our religion, our buffer against
the ultimate contingency, death. He is the one who descends into
hell, into the savage and primitive, and on the third day, arises
from the dead, into the light, into civilization, into the sound
of women weeping over his empty grave. He walks into the waiting
arms of civilization, offering us redemption, regeneration. A
kiss on dry lips relieves the parched wilderness, soft hands
gently brush the trail-dust off of his face. His sacrifice once
again acknowledged, accepted, he goes out again, alone, good at
his back, evil ahead, sitting tall in the saddle, his principles
like a steel rod holding his head up high, to face the
wilderness, the savage, and to conquer again.
The social fact of the influence of the frontier myth on American
popular culture can be replicated by a short trip to the nearset
bestseller bookstand, turning on the TV, a trip to the theatre to
see a movie.
What about a social science fact as pervasive as plastic?
Further, consider some examples that may be familiar to you:
You are in a discussion on an issue of common concern, say a
political issue. The discussion may have begun at the level of
ideas about what the right course of action might be. People
discuss what they have read, seen on TV or heard on the radio.
They dissagree. They dissagree about the validity of the sources
that have been read, seen or heard, they dissagree on the bias of
the sources. Though you or your fellow disscussants dissagree,
the dissagreement up to this point has been largely an equal one
where each person's opinion has relatively equal weight as the
summation of what they know from the information they have been
exposed to. Now, suppose one of the dissussants asserts direct
personal experience with the consequences of the issue under
disscussion. What happens? Does the discussion retain its
essential egalitarian nature where all opinions are valid, or is
it now skewed by the interjection of an individual who asserts
personal experience? Which form of knowledge takes precedent,
secondary sources or personal experience?
Sound familiar? If you read on it will.
A recent post on anthro-l concerned an abstract by:
Re: Author: Jonathan Marks
Title: The Conflict of Anthropology and Genetics against Hyper-
materialism and Folk Heredity
Abstract: Anthropology is responsible for the refutation of two
commonsense folk syllogisms, which nevertheless endure in the
popular consciousness. The first, popular since the turn of the
century, runs: Genes code for the Brain; the Brain is the seat of
the Mind; the Mind contains Thoughts; therefore, bad thoughts are
caused by bad genes. while this has the perennially seductive
appeal of materialistic biology behind it, the syllogism is as
false now as it was when advanced by the early proponents of
*Comment*: What Marks says is essentially true about "folk
syllogisms," but I have serious doubts as to how successful
anthropology has been in refuting them. While anthropology has
contributed to the scientific evidence available to invalidate
these ideas, the persistance of these folk syllogisms is
revealing of a failure to truly refute them. Why? What
biological anthropologists fail to recognize is the appeal of
these ideas on a deeper, more profound, more fundamental,
cultural level. There is a cognitive imperative to associate the
ephemeral, but patterned, behavior of people with determinable
causes. This cognitive imperative is translated into cultural
folk syllogisms that over-determine the material (the inherent,
the constitutional, the biological) characteristics of other
people. To understand the power of this within our culture a
reading of Richard Slotkin's trilogy on the Myth of the Frontier
in American popular culture is helpful. But the basis goes back
further. The early ideas about pre-destination among Calvinists
are an example.
The basic decisions that people have to make that
inextricably link physical survival and comfort with material
production with social organization are determined by assumptions
people hold about the physical world and the entities, inluding
other people, with whom they share it. People, for example, have
to decide who to cooperate with, who to share with, whose advice
to heed, and conversely who will abuse that cooperation, who will
cheat, who gives bad advice. These are translated into cultural
syllogisms as to who makes a good leader, a wise advisor, who is
part of the group and who is not, and further what over-
determined but persistant characteristics can be used to make
It is unfortunate, but true, that anthropologists who can
analytically dissect cultures and explicate the inter-
relationships of the material and the social, have a difficult
time escaping the purely analytical approach and taking culture
seriously as a factor in human behavior, including our own.
Consequently, there is a perception among anthropologists that
the causes of a phenomena within our own culture, such as racism,
is amenable to an examination of the intellectual or scientific
(pseudo- or otherwise) arguments to the exclusion of an
examination of why these arguments are accepted or rejected. It
is here that an assertion of refutation falls short.
In American culture personal validation and by association,
the validation of the arguments one asserts, is derived from a
powerful and persistant cultural principle of having been there,
done that, and thus having demonstrated having the "right stuff"
and further, through personal experience, having acquired the
special knowledge to speak to an issue and voice an opinion. In
essence, validation through testing. As Slotkin describes it,
regeneration through regression. This cultural principle is the
result of a social history based on mythologizing the frontier
experience and the inherent characteristics that were needed to
conquor it, and thus revealed in those who did, white people.
The stories derived from this myth and that are so appealing
to Americans are based not just on the triumph of the individual
crusader, Indian scout, etc... (from Leather Stocking Tales to
Rambo) but on the triumph of certain inherent characteristics
found in the individuals who do triumph. It goes back to Plato's
forms and ideas. There is implicit recognition of the form that
a warrior, a tireless worker, a conqueror, a winner exhibits. Up
to now there has also been an implicit recognition that to
acknowledge the success of blacks in America as a successful
struggle against the social frontier of racism and slavery is to
acknowledge that one of the essences of the mythic form is no
longer white. It thus becomes more difficult to make the
necessary decision-distinction about who is a part of the group
and who is not. It also makes it more difficult to decide whose
advice we will heed and whose we will ignore.
One of the best examples I have found of this is in an
interview with Glen Lowry in The New Yorker (May 1, 1995: 33-41)
an African-American republican who was, and is, a vehement critic
of the "liberal-left" affirmative action ideology. As the author
of the interview, Robert S. Boynton pointed out, Lowry used a
frontier past, an urban frontier past,
"a connection to the streets, a trump card he often
used to win arguments. He knew--he had been there.
What good were all the advanced degrees in the world
against someone who had actually experienced the ills
of the underclass? 'Don't give me that shit,' he would
say. 'I'm from Chicago.'" (Boynton, 1995:36)
Anthropologists have a hard time with this because we are
the exemplars within academia. Anthropologists go out to the
frontier, like the Indian scouts before us, we learn how the
natives live, we hold dear to the "rite of passage" that is
fieldwork, a regression that leads, if we are successful and have
the right stuff, to a regeneration where we present our
analytical description, our unique special knowledge acquired
through the test of fieldwork, in the form of dissertations,
articles, books, conference presentations, etc... It is through
this process that an individual acquires validation as an
anthropologist and thus the attention of fellow anthropologists
in asserting the validity of one's arguments. We are so immersed
in this process, we depend on it so much for our validation as a
discipline and thus for ourselves as well as adherents and
proponents of our discipline, our methodology and our findings
and opinions, what we can assert as our contribution to
knowledge, that we have a hard time standing back from it an
analyzing some of the consequences of this cultural principle.
Consequently, we tend to disregard that much of the
acceptance of racist ideas has roots in the same folk syllogisms
that make anthropological knowledge, narratives (stories), and
thus knowledge and our standing among the other academic and/or
social science disciplines a valid one.
Marks Abstract continues:
The second is that the observation of consistent differences
between groups of people implies a constitutional basis for those
differences. The inference of an innate origin simply on the
basis of consistency of observation lies in the realm of "folk
heredity," not in modern genetics, and has been consistently
refuted by physical anthropology in this century.
"Nature-Nurture" is a false dichotomy promoted by hereditarians
since Galton. It is both ahistorical and unbiological.
Contemporary discourse could more profitably be structured around
two other axes: biological history vs. social history; and
within-group variation vs. between-group variation
*Comment* Marks is right again about the false dichotomy promoted
by hereditarians. His comment on contemporary discourse,
however, misses the mark. Contemporary discourse could be more
profitably structured if the validation of that discourse did not
lay with the telling of certain kinds of stories, frontier
stories. Contemporary hereditarian narratives as well as their
precursors are inextricably linked with stories of being on the
frontier of knowledge, just going where the data leads, being
courageous and brave in the face of what Philippe Rushton, among
others, calls "egalitarian dogma." These guys (Mr Bell Curve,
Charles Murray is another example) now decry persecution in
academia for their racist ideas, arguing that their ideas are
data driven, not the other way around and thus their stand is a
scientifically courageous one.
The key point here is that the use of a personal narrative drawn
straight from the frontier myth validates in, at least, American
eyes, the story teller.
Current Stuff... The Analytical Becomes A Personal Frontier
Narrative in Re: race in commercials.
A recent post from:
From: Martin Cohen <mcohen@UCLA.EDU>
contained references to a post by Jane W. Gibson. The post went
From: Martin Cohen <mcohen@UCLA.EDU>
To: Multiple recipients of list ANTHRO-L <ANTHRO-
L@UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU> Subject: Re: race in commercials
Jane W. Gibson wrote:
>This case points to the difference between individuals within
corporations >and corporations themselves. Individuals may have
multiple and diverse >agendas which can be promoted with or
without direct reference to them. >For-profit corporations too
may have multiple agendas, but these always >include profit-
making. I'd be interested to know what your friend's >arguments
to his bosses were. Did he try to appeal to their desires for
>social justice or did he argue that company profits would grow
by extending >product appeal to a wider, more diverse audience?
It was his own production co. He was the boss. He had to
convince the clients.
>What is beyond question is that had the company (management)
believed the >ad would reduce profits,
>they'd never have run it, unless the company was a not-for-
That's absolutely true. They (the client, not his co.) had to be
convinced there was no risk, and perhaps some advantage. It
wasn't an easy task. He, on the other hand, was motivated by what
he thought was the right thing to do. Of course he ran his co.
for profit. (He's retired now.)
*We gotta stop here and think. First, Jane's post was directed
at the individual within the corporation. Jane did not disparage
the actions of Dr. Cohen's friend. She pointed out that
corporations act to generate profits. A point Dr. Cohen agreed
with. Now we need a little mode switch. Mr. Cohen's friend did
run his own business but in this case he had a boss, the client,
and that would become the "company" that would not run the ad if
it would reduce profits. This is not a trivial point. Mr. Cohen
could have responded to the analytical issue posed by Jane
Carpenter but chose instead to maintain the personal narrative by
adding "Of course he ran his co. for profit." That of course was
not the issue. The issue was what the client who paid for the
add did and why.
As a result of Dr. Cohen's maintainance of the personal narrative
he could with coherence go on to say:
On a related issue: We live in a capitalist society, like it or
not. However much we may disparage the system (and the man I
referred to above could enthrall you for hours on the evils of
capitalism), it is the hight of elitist arogance to disparage
people in the process of earning a living in this system.
*Comment: The point would make no sense if the profit making
institution making the decision to run or not run the commercial,
i.e. the client, was the entity referred to here. But no. Dr.
Cohen maintained the personal and thus is able to assert that his
friend was disparaged as a result of "elitist arrogance." More
importantly is the assertion that Dr. Cohen's friend "could
enthrall you for hours on the evils of capitalism." Thus
capitalism is an evil business but it is elitist arrogance to
disparage those who must endure it. Dr. Cohen's friend was (he
is retired now) out on the capitalist frontier and no one who has
not been out there can disparage what has to be done out there to
earn a living.
We academics, with our dependance on grants and public funding,
tuition collected by our employers, etc. are not above it all.
In fact, since we do not contribute to material production, there
are plenty of old time Marxists that would call us "social
*Comment: We do not contribute to material production? Do
corporations pay for the education of their employees? Is the
public education provided corporation employees a subsidy? And
do we not provide such an education? As far as "old time
Marxists" calling us academics social parasites, they would have
to get past Marx himself first.
Advertising moves products, thereby employing workers, who feed
their families. It is not more or less obnoxious than any other
form of economic activity in a capitalist society.
How many academics (especially females) underpay some hard
working exploited woman from Latin America to care for their kids
so they can spend the day on campus?
*Comment: uncalled for, most importantly the "especially females"
part, but in keeping with the personal narrative context.
The friend I described did something remarkable. He got his
hands dirty in capitalism, as we all must, without compromising
his basic humanity. He did make compromises in his career. He
chose to support his family succeeding in comercial production
rather than starve to death trying to make it directing motion
pictures without studio backing.
*Comment: And here is the summation of the narrative. Here is
the regeneration through regression, the been there, done that,
the validation of the entire story. Difficult choices had to be
made, "get your hands dirty" or "starve!" Lets be clear here.
The "dirty hands" is COHEN's figure of speech, the regression he
asserts for his friend, not a regression asserted in the
analytical discussion that preceded.
The points made here are not to take anything away from Dr.
Cohen's friend. The point is that the way the story is told, the
allusions used, "dirty hands" or "starve," the opposition that
is set up between the courageous (the capitalist) and the weak,
the "parasite" is as important as the content, i.e. what Dr.
Cohen's friend actually did.
In this story the academics hide behind the circled wagons while
the courageous capitalists (genetically imbued with inherent
characteristics that make them good capitalists and not with any
sullied academic knowledge gained from the parasitc) sally forth
against the savages thereby preventing starvation.
More importantly in asserting this post-modern fact, is
replication. This will happen again. Analysis will give way to
personal narratives that assert a regeneration through regression
and validate the point not with the specifics of who did exactly
what, but how the story is told. Thus we have a replicated post-
modern social fact. Ah, but what to do with it.