Monday, April 27, 2009
Imaginary Tribes #6
Justin E. H. Smith
[Please click to read Imaginary Tribes #'s 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.]
It's the 105th annual meeting of the American Society for Anthropology. Dr. Ken Vonderwelt is late to his own talk. He is rushing from door to door in the massive foyer of the Minneapolis Sheraton, looking for the appointed venue, from the Lake Superior Banquet Hall to the Madison Ballroom to the 10,000 Lakes Business Solutions Headquarters. He can't find a soul he knows, not even in the Twins Sports Bar.
Vonderwelt spots an employee and asks him where the anthropologists are. The employee's nametag says 'Jimmy'. Jimmy asks him if he means the convention. He says there was a convention on the mezzanine level, but that the mezzanine conventioneers were all carrying tote bags advertising some new hip-replacement device.
"I think they're like doctors," Jimmy says. "Are you a doctor?"
"Not really," Vonderwelt replies.
"Maybe your group is meeting in the basement rooms. They're along the hall next to the fitness center. They're named after cities from around here. You know like Brainerd and Duluth."
Vonderwelt takes the elevator down two flights below the ground floor. In the Bemidji Room there's a man wearing a turquoise bolo tie. He has a long grey goatee and is talking to an audience of a dozen people or so about a recent summer spent arrowhead collecting with his wife. "We took the camper out near Flagstaff," he recounts. "Great arrowhead country out there. Mitzi and I were in heaven." Alas, Vonderwelt says to himself, I'm with my people.
But this is not quite the group he's looking for so he moves on, further down the hall. In the St. Cloud Room there are two men, one of them Native American, sitting in front of microphones and unopened bottles of water. He's wearing a flanel shirt and a cap that says 'Buffalo Bills' on it. The man next to him is talking about resource conservation in the Finger Lakes area. "Otherwise," he says, concluding some line of reasoning Vonderwelt had missed, "pretty soon the bass fishing won't be so good for the region's original inhabitants." He turns to his neighbor and says: "You wouldn't like that, would you Jerry?" Jerry grunts 'no', and the dozen or so people in the audience emit a borderline-laugh of condescending agreement.
Vonderwelt goes out and opens the next door along the hallway, entering the Mankato Room. It's a younger crowd, and a larger one. A young woman, her face cluttered with eyebrow rings and horn-rimmed glasses, is talking about the teenaged 'cosplayers' of Harajuku. She maintains that Lolita goths need to be seen as a separate species from, rather than a variety of, the vampire goths. Vonderwelt hears the word 'intermediality' and quickly makes his exit. What the hell kind of profession is this? he wonders. What do any of these people have to do with one another?
Next to the fitness-room door he spots a flyer with one of those copyright-free bits of clip-art, those silhouettes with the protruding noses and question marks over their heads, those inane little icons that announce: here an instance of bottom-of-the-barrel scholarship is about to take place; here an event has been scheduled for people associated with universities, but which bears only the most distant ancestral relation to science natural or human: a brown-bag lunch for faculty and/or staff on smoking cessation or stress management ("Blood pressure soaring? Try walking to work!"), a workshop on learning styles and multiple intelligences sponsored by the Office of Teaching Support, a lecture by Dr. Ken Vonderwelt. Or the clip-art homunculus might be found frozen in a stomping motion, surrounded by exclamation points and asterisks, and for this bad behavior will have been crossed through with a red slash. "No hitting, swearing, threatening, or other violent gestures of any kind will be tolerated in this office," the sign will warn, perhaps concluding with that golden oldie of public-institutional morality: "It's About Respect!" Nay indeed, wherever that clip-art man is found, you will know that the university has lost its way.
"Looking for Dr. Ken Vonderwelt's talk on 'The Sociocosmic Context of the Nak Concept among Ural-Altaic Reindeer Herders'?" the flyer reads, as the homunculus scratches his head. "It's been moved to the Minnetonka Annex!" The little man appears again, now featured in a running motion, running, we may presume, towards the Minnetonka Annex, his question mark transformed into an exclamation point, bending backwards from the sheer speed of his dash.
Dammit! Vonderwelt thinks. Why do they always write 'Ural-Altaic' when it's supposed to be 'Aral-Ultaic'?! And where is that damned circumflex accent over nâk? Nak doesn't even mean anything! Come to think of it, nâk doesn't mean anything either. I thought it did when I did my thesis. I made up this whole big structuralist structure that made it mean something. That went out of fashion, the profession crumbled into a thousand little camps --dear old arrowhead collector here, indigenous advocate there, grating culture-studies clones all around-- and I was left with my meaningless nâk: just a sound, really, just a meaningless sound the fates had conspired to make the center of my career. Nâk means employee benefits is what nâk means. Nâk means braces for the girls. Nâk meant braces for the girls anyway. Now it's just this last meaningless talk of an undistinguished career, advertised with clip-art, to be given in the Minnetonka Annex of the Minneapolis Sheraton.
"Miss," Vonderwelt says, showing his unconcealable age, to a girl pushing a cart bearing multiple 24-packs of bottled water. "Where's the Minnetonka Annex?"
"Oh that's like out on the lake," the girl says. "That's where we host company retreats. You know like the kind where people who work together go out to the woods and they have to fall backwards so their co-workers can catch them? To build trust and stuff?"
Vonderwelt nods his head.
"Well they do that there."
Nâk means last talk before I move to half-time teaching and the faculty takes away my conference-travel stipend. Last talk of my career and they've moved it out to a business retreat out of town without telling me. Nâk means lichen and nâk means life-force-- Vonderwelt was by now mumbling in a mocking tone. Nâk means whatever you want it to mean. Louise, the older girl, used to make up new meanings for words she shouldn't even have known yet. She took the names of illnesses and extended them far beyond the human body. A potato with too many eyes or too much mold was said to have 'tuberculosis'; upon entering an odd-smelling room she would deem it to be suffering from 'roomatism'.
How many Sanskrit scholars have milked a steady paycheck and employee benefits out of om? What does om mean, anyway? Vonderwelt wonders. Something like the onomatopoeia of the cosmos; the sound the human voice makes to sound like nothing in particular, just life itself. But they have texts and tradition. I had reindeer herders.
Self-pitying Vonderwelt makes his way to the annex shuttle in the front parking lot. There he finds Jimmy, buck-toothed and acne-ridden, yet, it now seems, a disarmingly eager employee of this great hotel franchise. "Hi doctor," he says, "you going to the annex?"
"I told you I'm not a doctor. And yes, to the Minnetonka Annex."
"This way sir, watch your fingers. It's a slide door."
In the van, Vonderwelt pulls from his bag his decades-old copy of the translation of A. P. Okladnikov's Yakutia Before Its Incorporation into the Russian State. It describes the archeological work carried under the author's leadership along the Lena River in 1939-40, under the auspices of the Yakut Institute of Language, Literature, and History and the N. Ya. Marr Institute for the History of Material Culture, which was then attached to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. To think that any science got done at all, in those years! More than today, that's for sure.
Tanya's father had been on that expedition. She says the archaeologists had been ordered by the Yakut Institute, transmitting a direct command from Moscow, to be on the look-out for signs of living woolly mammoths in the region of the mouth of the Khatanga and in the vicinity of Cape Chelyushkin. She says that in 1938 General N. V. Vatutin, inspired by his recent taste of dethawed mammoth meat from Karelia, had developed a plan, codenamed 'Hannibal', to create a sort of cavalry of woolly mammoths that would drive the German army out of Finland. Vatutin regaled Stalin with images of the Arctic elephants' mighty tusks, and assured him of the 'near-certainty' that they were still out there roaming, somewhere, in the great North. Stalin became fixated. The archaeologists were given tranquilizer guns, and strict orders to 'harness' and 'tame' at least a half-dozen of the beasts by the end of their year-long expedition.
"Who knows if Tanya was telling the truth?," Vonderwelt thinks. "Maybe I should tell the story when I get to the annex, just to keep the legend alive."
"Last stop, Minnetonka Annex," bellows Jimmy, awakening Vonderwelt from his private Sibériade, as he slams on the brakes in the nearly empty parking lot of a bleak, futurist little complex of glass cubes tucked among the pines on the edge of the lake.
In the entryway to the large, central cube, Vonderwelt finds a letterboard announcing an event hosted by a certain Dr. Glenn Bacca, Ph.D.: "Building Trust, Building Sales: It's Your Move!" On a fold out table to the side there is a cardboard box filled with glossy pamphlets describing Dr. Bacca's many accomplishments. "Dr. Glenn Bacca, Ph.D., is one of the most sought-after motivational speakers in the country," the pamphlet announced. "Known to earn up to $20,000 for a single engagement, Dr. Bacca has made a name for himself wowing crowds and boosting sales from Palm Beach to Palm Springs."
There is no sign of Vonderwelt's talk, not on the letterboard, not in any pamphlets in a cardboard box on the fold-out table. Vonderwelt turns toward Jimmy, who had followed him in from the shuttle. "Are you sure this is the Minnetonka Annex?"
"Positive," Jimmy says.
"So you're sure this is where I'm supposed to be?"
"This is definitely where you're supposed to be," smiles Jimmy.
Vonderwelt seems to understand. He nods to Jimmy, thanking him for his help, letting him know he could bring the shuttle back to the hotel. This was the final engagement.
Vonderwelt hears the din of audience participation from a meeting room down the hall, and makes his way towards it. He can already hear Bacca's voice, the voice of a man-child, a honey voice honed through an adolescence spent in community-theater productions of Cats and Grease. When Vonderwelt enters the meeting room the motivational speaking came to a halt, and twenty or so middle-aged, Midwestern middle managers, a thoroughly middling tribe, stand gaping towards the door, waiting for Bacca to give them some kind of sign.
"I'm Ken Vonderwelt," the interloper volunteers. "I'm, uh, here for the seminar on boosting sales."
"Well I don't know if you can call it a seminar," Bacca replies, feigning an English accent for that unfamiliar word, "but we're definitely about boosting sales."
The middle managers all laugh heartily, gesturing for Vonderwelt to come join the fray. Bacca instructs them to go around the room and say a little bit about themselves. There is Doug from Cedar Rapids who is just trying to stay focused on his vision, and Harlan from Peoria who won't let any negativity kill his deals. There is Steve whose dreams didn't burst when the housing bubble did, and Barb who, to the great delight of her peers, is on her way to outselling her ex for the third year in a row.
Once everyone in the room has been introduced, Bacca announces a new plan: "You know what I think we're going to do? I'm going to have you partner with Tammy here, and what you and Tammy are going to do is what we call a trust-building exercise. Because why?"
"Because there's no sales without trust," three or four of the participants mutter.
"You think that's something you want to do?"
Vonderwelt nods his head.
"Good," Bacca says. "Now you know what? I think we're going to do one of the oldies-but-goodies here. Now I know you're all going to be like, 'that's so cliché, that's so cliché'. You're going to say you remember seeing it on Eight is Enough way back in the Stone Age. But you know what? It's been around for so long because it works. Techniques that work in the motivational business are techniques that last. So Ken what I'm going to have you do is to get ready to put your trust into Tammy here. And I mean your complete trust. You're going to have trust Tammy to catch you when you fall back into her arms. If Tammy doesn't come through for you, then you know what? Your skull's going straight for the tiles. Sound good?"
Vonderwelt nods his skull, and he begins to prepare himself to fall. He tries to imagine what might come next. Would he be stripped naked and painted black with soot, taking on the form of some god of the underworld? The god of no-sales, who would then be ritualistically cast out and plunged into Lake Minnetonka? Would they scarify him with motivational hortations, or adorn him with a bluetooth headset and a penile sheath bearing slogans that promise 'solutions'? And is this fate, Vonderwelt thinks as he waits to fall, not the fate of anthropology itself? Could anyone else offer a more incisive farewell performance than I, here, building trust, falling backwards into the arms of some homely sales team leader from some branch office in Grand Rapids?
team forms a circle around them, and begins to chant 'trust, trust,
trust' in the same tone and rhythm that Vonderwelt imagines college
kids in that same region must, at that same moment, be encouraging
their peers to 'chug'. Bacca enters the circle and lurks
over Vonderwelt and his partner. The motivational speaker had become
the high priest of trust, and trust had become --by some hidden chain
of cosmic associations that would have been entirely obscure just
minutes earlier-- that force that sustained sales, just as blood once
brought the rain that made the corn grow. The high priest leans in
closer and commands:
"Now Ken, on the count of three, I want you to trust, and I want you to fall. Tammy here's got your back, you remember that."
"No you know what? I'm going to do something different this time. Instead of just one-two-three, like that, I'm going to count 'one, two, three... trust!' And when I say trust!, just like that, that's when you fall."
Vonderwelt nods his head again.
This new variation on the countdown is carried out to great enthusiasm, and Vonderwelt begins his descent. And as he falls the din of the encircling mob faded into the distance, and Bacca's theatrics occupy just the narrowest corner of his eye, and Tammy's saving hands seem still hours away (if they are to materialize at all, and all this talk of trust is to succeed in summoning its deity after all). And the sensation of the wind, and the blur of the bodies, and the sound of their chant all blend together in Vonderwelt's falling brain, in his now semi-retired, entirely spent little brain, into a single word.
Is that word trust? God no, Vonderwelt is no heathen. Is it om? It isn't that either. Om echoes with pure harmonious being, but Vonderwelt's word comes riddled with provisos, stipulations, conditionality, and backtracking. Is it, then, that notoriously plurivocal nâk? How desperately he would have wanted it to be just that! It is almost that, but --oh, what a career!-- the circumflex is missing. He hears it with a long a as in marsh, not the a is in land that Aral-Ultaicists associate so strongly with that two-sloped diacritical mark.
"Damn where's the circumflex!?" Vonderwelt thinks, plummeting, just as Tammy's cell, programmed to ring to the tune of the Eagles' 1976 hit, "Life in the Fast Lane," begins to peel out for attention. And the heart of the sales team leader from Grand Rapids, who never really gave a damn about sales, but only turned her attention to them in proportion as her nubility waned, races with hope as she recalls the personal ad she has placed in the Grand Rapids free weekly (which, too, referenced life in the fast lane), and causes her, cursed be the gods, to reach for her classic-rock phone.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Posted by Justin E. H. Smith at 01:44 AM | Permalink