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Lecture 9

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ANTH 1001
Bernhard Leistle

Lecture 9: The Rules and Dating “The Rules” -History: a Hype in the 1990s, “a movement” that started unanticipated, with self-help groups of women trying to support each other “following the rules” -authors have no therapeutic background, one was an accountant (Fein), the other a free-lance journalist (Schneider); now they market their “rules”-program, e.g. you can book workshops with them, buy DVDs or do phone counseling at a rate of 350 $ per hour. -Fun-fact: Ellen Fein filed for divorce in 2000, but re-married in 2008, according to herself having attracted her new husband by following The Rules. What does it mean to approach The Rules as a cultural phenomenon, and from a cultural anthropological perspective? What it not means to judge it aesthetically! We must for the purpose of a “thick description” suspend our inclination to dismiss the book as “reactionary”, “shallow”, “stupid”, “out of date”. Or better, we must reflect on that inclination and explain its appearance, for we as anthropologist we cannot suppress our subjectivity. In this aspect again, the attitude towards The Rules is comparable to that of a fieldworker in relation to the culture he or she studies: Rather than judging it by his or her standards, the other culture must be understood in its meaning for those practicing it. The first question we could then ask with regards to The Rules is: Why dating? Why did the authors decide to write a topic about this particular topic?And, somewhat more pragmatic, why could they hope that such a book would attract an audience? In other words: Why is the topic meaningful? The answer lies, I believe, in the sense of “dating” both as a general human phenomenon and as a specific cultural practice. Generally, “dating” is situated in the domain of courtship, mating and reproduction, a domain that is as universal as it gets among humans.All peoples are intrigued by the problems posed by this domain which connects with powerful motives, “drives” even, like sex, sociality and reproduction. Every culture can be said to come up with solutions to these problems, “rules” as to how the domain is to be navigated. The specific solution of later 20 th century Western culture in general and NorthAmerican culture specifically seems to be to not impose strict rules onto the situation labelled “dating”. Characteristically, two people are 1 supposed to use “dating” to find out whether or not they are suitable as mates for each other, be that suitability temporarily as “lovers”, or infinite as in the case of a marriage-relationship. No third party is supposed to be involved, just the pure individuality of the two people concerned. The purpose of “dating” is then to find out what the other is really like in an intimate sense, yet the activity often takes place on the basis of minimal prior knowledge of the other. Dating is getting to know each other for the purpose of intimacy; it is a high stakes game, played without generally agreed upon rules, set down somewhere so that one could consult them in case of doubt. In order to become a full social being, to find a mate with whom to live intimacy and to reproduce (both not confined to heterosexual relations), NorthAmerican culture expects the individual to “date”. Since the motivations to engage in this kind of culturally specific activity are strong, because linked to organic existence, and the rules of the game unclear, the danger of emotional and psychological harm is great.Abook that promises one or the other group guidance in this area can hope to find its audience. Why The Rules? I came across the book some years ago while I was still in Germany. I read an article in a German news magazine in which it was discussed. The author of the article presented it as if it was an ethnography of NorthAmerican dating culture, as if the rules the book was talking about were indeed operating in social life. I did not forget about the article and bought the book when looking for teaching materials. I was surprised to find that the reality status of the rules of dating as described by the book seemed to be much more ambivalent than had been implied in the German article. The Rules seemed to be saying that on the one hand they reflected a reality which was out there, but was not consciously present to the “dating subject”, while on the other hand, they gave the impression that they had to produce the reality they were talking about themselves, by persuading its female readers to follow their advice. This fundamental ambivalence is the ambivalence of culture as a process of communication! On the one hand, we live in a shared reality which we take for granted; on the other hand, we know that we produce this reality ourselves, and that reality can therefore be otherwise, that it can be changed. The Rules intend to change the culture of dating for women, by prescribing a certain type of behavior for them; at the same time, they claim that they describe a reality which is already existing; a reality which all of their prospective readers know, dating as culturally practiced and taken for granted. From this perspective, The Rules becomes to be seen as a meaningful act in the process of communication which is culture. For The Rules to be 2 understood, they must make use of a language that is understood by their audience; through the signs out of which it is composed, the book must establish references to already existing “webs of meanings”. At the same time, however, it uses these ready-made meanings to communicate a new meaning, and this new meaning contains a suggestion how the reality of dating is to be defined. Or, in other words: The Rules themselves are a performance that takes place in the context of a situation and contributes to the definition of that situation. How Real are The Rules? As communication, the process of culture is open-ended and cannot be determined absolutely. Therefore, The Rules can only contain a suggestion as to how the reality of dating is to be defined. How “real” they become will depend on two factors: how accurately they capture and take up the existing, indeterminate reality of “dating”, and how effectively they articulate the transformation they intend to achieve. When you look at the reviews of the book, as you are supposed to do for the essay, you see that the questions implied here cannot be answered unambiguously. Equal numbers of reviewers claim that the book reflects reality and works for them, or the reverse. The degree to which it is effective is correlative with the tendency of people to interpret reality in the terms suggested by the book, to experience, think of and behave in dating in accordance with The Rules, to “live by” them. If as a social actor and cultural subject, you are unwilling to abide by The Rules, because you think they are “reactionary” and “manipulative”, “psychopathological”, etc. you will not start to interpret reality in their terms. But you cannot deny the reality of The Rules in at least one respect: their existence as a communicative act, a performance in the domain of dating which attempted to define the situation in a particular way. In this sense, even the negative reviews on acknowledge the reality-producing character of The Rules. What do The Rules mean, and how do they “make sense”? Goffman has said that the beginning of social situations, of encounters is of particular importance for the establishment of a shared reality. When the self first enters a face-to-face situation, its self-presentation is intended to define the character of the relationships that will pertain between it and the other participants. The same goes for books, for example ethnographies: it is at the beginning of traditional ethnographies that anthropologists are most vocal about the more 3 personal circumstances of their fieldwork (which is not the same as being honest about it, see Malinowski!). They perform a self-presentation which is supposed to establish their authority over their readers. This authority consists in the fact that the reader must be convinced that the anthropologist “was there” and that his description reflect reality and truth of the other culture. Now what about The Rules? The first chapter is called “The History of the Rules”, and is obviously intended to establish the credibility and authority of the book. In the beginning, they talk about a certain “Melanie”, allegedly a friend of the authors who has learned The Rules from her grandmother “circa 1917” (This date carries an important meaning, to which we get back a little later!). The Rules were an element of a hidden female culture, something like a secret sisterhood of women. They were not talked about loudly, but whispered: “After all, modern women aren’t to talk loudly about wanting to get married. We had grown up dreaming about being the president of the company, not the wife of the president. So, we quietly passed The Rules on from friend to friend, somewhat embarrassed because they seemed so, well, ‘50s. Still, we had to face it: as much as we loved being powerful in business, for most of us, that just wasn’t enough. Like our mothers and grandmothers before us, we also wanted husbands who would be our best friends. Deep inside, if the truth be told, we really wanted to get married – the romance, the gown, the flowers, the presents, the honeymoon – the whole package. We didn’t want to give up our liberation, but neither did we want to come home to empty apartments. Who said we couldn’t have it all?” (5/6) In some sense the whole book is contained in its first passages! Atension and conflict is evoked which is characteristic of the experience of women at the end of the 20 century: the structural incompatibility between equal participation in the job market, that is with access to all its levels, including “president” and CEO, and the full engagement in family life which is traditionally expected from women, that is being devoted wives and mothers. The authors refer to that conflict and present their book as its solution: “Who said we couldn’t have it all?” They also present themselves in these first pages as experts for their topic, to say it more precisely: They are participant observers in and ethnographers of this old, wise, female subculture. Fein and Schneider are something like anthropologists: they didn’t make up The Rules; they discovered The Rules like an explorer discovers an exotic tribe; and they received them from a member of this secret tribe practicing them, from “the Melanies”. Finally, they are initiated into this tribe: 4 “There we were – a secret underground, sharing the magic, passing it on, doing what historically women have done for each other since the world began – networking for success. This time, though, the stakes were larger and the victories sweeter than any corporate deal. We’re talking marriage here – real, lasting marriage, not just loveless mergers – the result of doing The Rules. The simple Rules. The How-to-find-a-Swell-Husband-Rules.” (6/7) So in the beginning we find a movement of positioning the book, a self-presentation of what its message is about. The authors present themselves as voices who know what they are talking about because they “have been there and done that”; there is also an atmosphere of secrecy and a spirit of discovery that is being evoked: The Rules were secret/sacred knowledge, passed only to the initiated; there is a certain danger that they are found out by others, by men and by “feminists”. The authors are the ethnographers describing this “other culture” of the rules for us, which is a suppressed subculture in our contemporary society, but was the mainstream cultural model in what can be called America’s “Golden Age”. When did this GoldenAge begin? If we th talk about the 20 century, we might well say in 1917, the year in which the US entered WWI. It had its climax in the 1950s after another war was won, and it ended with the 1960s, with the war in Vietnam which had a much less glorious outcome, and which correlated with the feminist movement and the deterioration of the traditional gender roles and family structures. Just by connecting the history of The Rules with this ominous date, the authors manage to conjure a whole cultural, historical and ideological context. If the reader accepts this self-presentation, she agrees with this version of reality, thereby producing it as real. In Chapter II we learn what The Rules are: “The purpose of The Rules is to make Mr. Right obsessed with having you as his by making yourself seem unattainable. In plain language, we’re talking about playing hard to get! Follow The Rules, and he will not just marry you, but feel crazy about you, forever! What we’re promising you is “happily ever after”.Amarriage truly made in heaven.” (8/9) The explanation of what The Rules are is immediately followed by a description of the benefits gained from following them; this is necessary since following The Rules involves some sort of self-sacrifice; it requires the “Rules girl” to postpone the gratification of their wish: “The idea is to The Rules with the man you’re really crazy about. This will require effort, patience, and self- restraint. But isn’t it worth it? Why should you compromise and marry someone who loves you but whom you’re not crazy about?” (10/11) 5 Restraint and self-control are the virtues that enable you to achieve your goals – The Rules tap deep into the value-structure of Western culture. More particularly, they emphasize the importance of certain values which are central for the worldview of the specific social stratum the authors come from and with which they expect their readership to identify: the middle class, or upper middle class, or to use a different term from Marxist theory, the bourgeoisie. It is in the bourgeoisie that postponing of gratification, delay between wish and fulfillment, becoming important forms of controlling one’s desires and appetites, most of them centered around bodily needs and drives. The German sociologist Norbert Elias in his great work The Process of Civilization, has shown how the emergence of the image of modern man was connected with the appearance of such seemingly trivial things as eating utensils like forks, knives and spoons and table manners. Eating with cutlery creates distance between the eater and the food, which is not sensually experienced through one’s hands anymore. Placing the portion for each person on a single plate is a direct spatial expression of the individuality of the person, which shapes the modern idea of man. And, finally, rules for proper table manners, like not starting to eat before everybody sits at the table, or to not take the last piece of food, to not appear greedy in general, etc. are direct means of inculcating modes of self-control in the experience of one’s body. When The Rules appeal to such themes, then they have a good claim to being understood on a cultural level that is pre-conscious and deeply connected with what we take ourselves to be. To connect to such themes is a powerful rhetorical strategy. Excursion on Methodology: Obviously, with the last passage I have moved from the level of the literal meaning of the text to a deeper level of interpretation. In terms of Geertz, we could say that the text itself is a first-order interpretation, upon which we construct an anthropological interpretation of the second, third etc. order. But I believe it is more precise to regard the text itself as already a second order interpretation of the primary cultural arena of dating. What you could observe there when you would do fieldwork in the scene, and how participants in that scene interpret their own and others’behavior is situated on a more primary level than a written account like The Rules which aims at prescribing how people ought to behave (the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive thinking and rhetoric is important in philosophical discourse, too.) Be this as it may, we have to distinguish methodologically between what the text says literally, on the surface level of its content, the literal information if provides and the 6 meaning which it communicates on the levels of non-literal, figurative meaning which we discover through interpretation, in other words, its cultural subtext. Ethnographic interpretation moves between these levels, always striving to make the subtext visible in the text itself, because it is the literal text through which the subtext must be communicated. If we regard the book itself as a performance in Goffman’s sense, and I suggested we should do that, we can parallel the literal meaning of the text (“The Rules work because they reflect the biological nature of men and women”) with the expression given in a self-presentation. The subtext then becomes analogous to the expression given off by the text, the interpretation we give of the literal meaning of the text (“The Rules use the metaphor of “man is a hunter” to communicate its understand of male-female relationships”) . Remember, too, that Goffman regards expression given off as the more important aspect of communication. It is by controlling what is thought of as involuntary and unintended (in face-to-face-interaction: the body; in texts: the subtext) that one can achieve the greatest effects on one’s audience (in face-to-face interaction: the other participants, in texts: one’s readers). From this follows a certain way of how anthropologists and other interpretive sciences present their insights, and this also pertains to how you’re supposed to write essays, in anthropology and other related disciplines. To put it simply: You have to show the validity of your interpretation by quoting exemplary parts of your materials. The meaning of a behavior, utterance or a text reaches beyond the literal message, but is also bound up with the message. That means in order to justify your interpretation, you must present an example of what the interpretation is of. This sound more complicated than it is. It really means just that you’re supposed to quote from your material, thereby showing what your claims are based on. Let’s move back after this excursion to the literal level of the text! In this chapter II, The Rules also provide an explanation for why they are successful as claimed by the authors. They reflect the respective natures of men and women: “Men are different from women. Women who call men, ask them out, conveniently have two tickets to a show, or offer sex on the first date destroy male ambition and animal drive. Men are born to respond to challenge. Take away challenge and their interest wanes. That, in a nutshell, is the premise of The Rules…..This is how it works: if men love challenge, we become 7 challenging! But don’t ask a man if he loves challenge. He may think or even say he doesn’t. He may not even realize how he reacts. Pay attention to what he does, not what he says.” (10/11) The claim that a phenomenon is “natural” is again a familiar trope of cultural rhetoric. Cultural reality is characterized by seeming natural and unchanging to us. We have, however, seen how this impression is produced: by repeated, successful processes of communication in which cultural agents manage to establish shared definitions of situations, a success which then allows them to forget about the act of defining itself and to concentrate on the challenges and goals presented by the situation. But is that not just my word against that of The Rules, one wants to ask? We will see, however, that The Rules themselves offer a performative, communicative understanding of the reality of dating. This is already indicated in the end of the above quote, where the authors urge their readers to focus on the expression given off by a prospective love interest: “Pay attention to what he does, not what he says.” In Chapter III, Meet ARules Girl, we learn more about that secret tribe living in accordance with the rules of female and male nature, the Melanies.Adistinction is made here between natural, “genuine” Melanies and “born-again” Melanies, “former Rules breakers who have learned their lesson after being burned by chasing men”. The language doesn’t accidentally remind one of religious conversion, of “born-again” Christians. The Rules are presented by the authors as a revelation, an insight that shows one the true nature of things related to dating and finding a mate. Interesting is the language that is being used which presents the Melanies as a species, a kind of exotic animal that moves through the dating-jungle elegantly (“dating is a jungle” is obviously a metaphor, of this later more). This elegance comes out the more clearly when we compare the behavior of the Melanie with the clumsy behavior of the non-Rules girls: “You will find Melanies everywhere you go. Watch them carefully. Observe how they have made self-contentment and independence an art form. They don’t look wildly around to catch men’s eyes. They don’t say hello first. They just go about their business. It would probably be good practice the next time you are at a social event to stand back and watch the Melanies and The Rules breakers. Notice how the Melanies intentionally don’t carry a pen with them in order to men their phone numbers and they don’t rush to give their business cards. Notice the way we move around the room while The Rules breakers stand too long in one 8 place, look anxious, or talk too long to one man. They make it too easy for men to ask them out – and, as you will read in this book, that’s a bad mistake.” (15/16) Here The Rules asks to become not so much anthropologists, but zoologists observing the different species of habitat and learning to distinguish between them by their specific behaviors. This, too, is part of the performance that The Rules are: they suggest to regard a situation from a certain perspective, thereby defining the reality of that situation: “Social Life is a Jungle”. Note 1. That this definition is made in metaphorical terms, and 2. That this metaphor is quite common and familiar (“It’s a jungle out there!”) Noteworthy about the attitude of the zoologist, as well as that of the scientist in general is that it suggests control. The field of observation becomes an experimental space, a laboratory and the observer detaches himself from the scene, gaining insight without interfering. Chapter IV “But First the Product – You!” establishes another metaphor: “women are a commodity”. This establishes a powerful reference to the world in which the authors and their readers lived and in which we continue to live, the world of consumer capitalism. What I have said in a previous lecture about food products applies of course to all commodities – we are surrounded by them and they are designed to appeal to us, to create the desire in us to buy them, possess them, consume them. Their design and display character both concerns the commodities themselves, as well as their various representations in the various forms of advertising (packaging, adds, commercials). The way we present ourselves, and especially how women are encouraged to present themselves is already partially informed by the metaphor – women already “live by” the metaphor “I am a commodity” to a certain extent and the authors can justifiably assume that their use of the metaphor will be understood by their readers. The chapter contains a lot of reference to the target audience of The Rules which is, as I have already said, the middle and upper-middle class, and women who identify with this class in their aspirations. More than that, it is probably fair to say that in one way or another the vast majority of North Ame
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