Blog prompt for class 3, Wednesday 2/15

Class: reminder there’s no class next Monday. Instead we’ll meet on Wednesday, 2/15 at 6:30.

Here are next week’s prompts. Choose only one of the three prompts below. (And even within each prompt, you do not need to consider every question posed — just the ones that are more productive for you.) Reply in the comments below.

One of the tenets of structuralist anthropology is that the structures of behavior (rituals, symbolism, etc.) are similar across cultures, even if the details differ. For example, in Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas argues that rituals of dirtiness and cleanliness recur in all cultures, whether or not they are “primitive” or modern. While the particular object or behavior that is considered “dirt” or “dirty” may differ, the underlying structure is essentially the same.

1. Do the tenets of structuralist anthropology outlined above—that common structures recur across cultures—also hold true within Tom McCarthy’s novel Satin Island, about an in-house corporate anthropologist called U? For example, does U.’s style of anthropology at the corporation differ from the ways that classical anthropologists would characterize their work (as beginning with “field work” in an “exotic” location)? What’s similar and what’s different? You can draw on U.’s own views for your response (though bear in mind that he is often an unreliable narrator).
2. Why do you think the author Tom McCarthy makes his protagonist an anthropologist? What special meanings and vantage points does it provide him? What if anything does it say about the relationship between fiction and fact as we normally think of these categories?
3. What meanings do figures of excess and pollution hold in the novel (for example, the oil spill)? What if anything do they help U. understand about the systems he is trying to describe? Do they help us understand anything about the world the author is describing?

6 thoughts on “Blog prompt for class 3, Wednesday 2/15

  1. Profile photo of Anthony DominguezAnthony Dominguez

    The tenets of structuralist anthropology due hold true within Satin Island, and this is seen in U.’s bringing up of Levi Strauss and drawing the similarities between Strauss’s work and his own. Mainly, it’s the anxiety of the anthropological work being done before: “It wasn’t just the fact that there could no more be a Levi-Strauss 2.0 than a second Leibniz…(126).” This same quote also points out, however, the key difference between U.’s work and that of the anthropologists before him, and that is, McCarthy’s inflection of Nietzsche into the novel, and the subsequent despair which arises.

    Whereas the anthropologists before U. were attempting to understand a different race and culture, U. is attempting to understand the entire era, and so we have “The Great Report.” But the modernity of Satin Island–advent of internet and global communication–leads U. to realize that the Great Report has already been written and thus there is no point to his work as an anthropologist, and possibly thereby, point to nothing.

    “To go to Staten Island–actually go there–would have been profoundly meaningless. What would it, in reality, have solved, or resolved? Nothing (186).”

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  2. Profile photo of Gregory RoccoGregory Rocco

    McCarthy adopts much from Proust in his writing as he is productive in his musings about his surroundings. However, this all comes with a twist: instead of personal memory afforded in a winding writing style, we instead receive moments through the lens of an anthropologist. The importance of the character being an anthropologist immediately is raised due to the setting of the novel. U, as he is conveniently called in the novel, in the beginning, is stuck in an airport, waiting for his flight. More importantly, he’s in an airport that’s a dedicated transfer hub – this means that the people walking through this airport are far from a monoculture due to their various backgrounds. As an anthropologist, he is able to take apart the rhizomatic structure of everyday life, being presented with almost everything in front of him in this place of transit, and identify nodes. In his identification, his main drive is to understand the surrounding rhizomes and whether or not the nodes truly make sense in these assemblages. Then throughout the book, he is placed in different locations as he works on The Great Report.

    What’s even more important is the fact that he’s a corporate anthropologist. He’s not looking at connections from a small interpersonal level, but rather connections for large corporations and governments that are basically looking to restructure human interactions and create fabricated subcultures. His main project, which is not only affecting the entire world apparently and will disrupt current systems, is not just underway, but might’ve already been implemented. This is the important note about the “fiction and fact” relationship – this attempt to blur the lines has us questioning whether or not things are natural or manufactured through our interactions with underlying forces.

    The one point in the novel when he has the chance for actual experience (whether to see if Staten Island is similar to the Satin Island of his dreams is similar), he avoids. This is because of his nature as an anthropologist to keep it as a complex mystified network rather than give it some sort of physical validation which might not be “real.”

    As a side note, the futility of McCarthy’s style almost reminds me of something kafkaesque – like The Castle. His winding almost seems similar (not so much the bundled existentialism and windowless monad, but rather style), and conveniently enough, Kafka also elects to name his character “K,” or an affirmation rather than McCarthy’s shortening of the 2nd person: “U.”

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  3. Profile photo of Muhammad DalhatuMuhammad Dalhatu

    In the novel Satin Island, the author Tom McCarthy makes his protagonist an anthropologist due to his personality. An introverted, detail orientated individual who is very introspective in the manner in which he views the world around him. An example of this can be seen when the protagonist U, visited the Staten Island Ferry in New York and gave a detail description of the visit. At the end as he changed his mind about getting on the ferry, he questioned the purpose of it all, the purpose of his visit and if it has any meaning. As he stated, “To go to Staten Island-actually go there-would have been profoundly meaningless. What would it, in reality, have solved, or resolved? Nothing.” (Pg. 186). The protagonist U’s detail description of the ordeal and his question as to why take the trip does bring fought a philosophical state of mind to anthropology. It brings fought the question of why study cultures, beliefs and social norms. This can be seen when he started to question the purpose of “The Great Report”, and if it has any meaning or if it can be accomplished due to its larger scale. It also be seen as U, started to relate all of his dossiers and how they all relate. The protagonist, although an anthropologist relates his work in a philosophical manner as he questions everything and tries to find meaning in all his work and how they relate to the meta-grand scheme of things.

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  4. sylvia c

    Anthropology studies human societies, cultures and their development. The classical anthropologist carry out research, work in the field, or employed by institutes or museums. U. is an anthropologist who works in a firm; hired to analyzes the corporate groups, study their operations and report back (43).
    The similarity between the ‘classical’ and ‘U.’ are both study and analyze a given group. The difference is the former studies the facts, but the latter concept of anthropology is ‘narrative.’ It’s fiction, though if the real exist, it’s still unestablished. Fictions from images, ideas, research, redesigning, interactions among individuals and/or groups; hence facts are followed and formatted by fiction.
    U. is working on the Company’s project, the Great Report, the corporate’s brand-new navigation manual (62), a project that has not been conducted yet. This project is so massive and complex, U. is overwhelmed by its ‘un-writable’ report. One day he dreams about an imaginary island, Satin Island, and decides to go to New York, Staten Island. This place, the great dump, now where waste transformed to national parks, should be an inspiration for the project. However arriving at New York, he does not take the ferry after all and restrains himself with doubt and questions.

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  5. Lee Clark

    The elaborate descriptions of nature and pollution helps us picture and feel what U. is trying to work through via his anthropological studies and processing of emotions. The ways in which U. will give the audience a narrative piece by piece, and then we, the audience always get a sense of how U. is feeling in a dossier.

    U.’s words throughout Satin Island are very emotional and explorative to me, especially in the ways that U. connects nature and pollution. To be specific, when U. is breaking down the concept of how Petr begins to treat his cancer with Middle Eastern orange juice. U.’s perspective of the Middle East changes, “from presenting an idyllic landscape, these hillsides and these orange groves were dotted with gun emplacements…” (92). The descriptions goes on the include the same adjectives that U.’s uses to describe an oil spill, “blackness” and “tarry.” The description becomes emotive as he talks about hatred and violence and ends this scene with U. coming to terms with his friend Petr was definitely going to die.

    The oil spill was ever-evolving throughout the book for U., he would at the beginning call the oil spill generic and unoriginal. By the end of the book, the oil spill was full of life and nature to him. U. states, “Is not the flow of oil the flow of time itself…” (118). The oil spill became nature, pollution and a representative of all past time periods for U. in his daydream of his speech at the convention in Frankfurt. The nature that U. describes is a direct reflection to how he is feeling.

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  6. CZ

    U. is an anthropologist because it allows him to be critical of culture while attempting have an certain understanding and decidedly suspicious of neutrality (Participatory observer). It also allows him to indulge in fantasies of grandeur, and reminisce about the ‘hey day’ of anthropology, through the idolization of his hero Levi Strauss. This allows McCarthy to explore what is left of our idea of culture, through U.’s dossiers, through corporate life as the last vestiges of ‘wild’, as the quantifiers of culture have eroded. Also this profession, allows a certain air of mystery that surround his work, a seemingly purposeful obfuscation that allows his widely reaching work and disparate connection making to take hold, “it’s taking shape.” It also allows him to be complicit in the Great Project, being a pawn of the corporate world, much like the mystery of what happens to his liaison after the Geneva protests.
    In thinking about how this designation as anthropologist might speak to the relationship of the categories of fact and fiction, I tend to think of U.’s work and observations, much less concerned with fact that with the connections that underpin conspiracy theories, or several layers of fictions. Even as he attempts to get at some great ‘factual’ finding for the great report, he finds himself more immersed in following seemingly endless journey of unraveling fictions or theories, when it comes time to go to Staten Island, he himself dismisses this as not actually necessary, instead getting lost in the crowd.

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