Archive for the ‘geekery’ Category

As a resident of Memphis, I have visited Graceland three times–two of those times were with esteemed colleagues in ancient art and archaeology (Rabun Taylor and Bettina Bergmann). While teaching a seminar last fall on Roman domus and villas around the Bay of Naples, it dawned on me that Graceland is our best extant example of what a Roman luxury villa was meant to be.

I mean, it has everything:

  • Locations for both otium (swimming pool, billiard room) and negotium (office, recording studio)
  • It is located in a semi-rural area, outside a city (at least when first constructed)
  • The house has now become a shrine to the memory of the residence’s most prominent owner
  • That prominent owner is buried there in an eye-catching monument
  • There are images of the owner’s ancestors (and their funerary monuments as well)
  • In the decoration there are allusions to exotic locations (the “Jungle Room”) and more traditional, indigenous elements
  • Animals in the decoration: peacocks (living room), monkey (media room)
  • There are “water features” for an allusion to the taming of nature (indoor waterfall in the Jungle Room)
  • The residence is situated on a large parcel of land

Perhaps unlike any Roman residence, there is at Graceland a very clear demarcation between public and private; visitors to the mansion are not allowed upstairs into the private bedrooms. Some rooms have a more consistent iconographical theme than what we see in ancient residences, rather than an eclectic blending of styles and subject matter.

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Yep, so an NPR program has hit me again with another example of economic capital, cultural capital, and social capital all collaborating to assist in self-fashioning. This time it was a Fresh Air interview with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, carried out by Terry Gross.

[NB: Gross’ speech patterns often drive me bananas, but Fresh Air keeps me good enough company on the bus ride to work.]

LCD Soundsystem’s song “Losing My Edge” is all about the anxiety one feels about getting older and being surpassed by the new generation coming up. Specifically, the lyrics deal with jealousy over a music collection.

Yeah, I’m losing my edge.
I’m losing my edge.
The kids are coming up from behind.
I’m losing my edge.
I’m losing my edge to the kids from France and from London.
But I was there.

I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody. Every great song by the Beach Boys. All the underground hits. All the Modern Lovers tracks. I heard you have a vinyl of every Niagra record on German import. I heard that you have a white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit – 1985, ’86, ’87. I heard that you have a CD compilation of every good ’60s cut and another box set from the ’70s.

This seems to have particular resonance with some of the anxiety Roman aristocrats felt about the nouveaux riches buying luxurious homes and filling them with the typical “collectibles” of the day–silverware, Greek or Greek-like sculpture, costly purple-dyed cloth, etc. There was a resentment that economic capital could be used to acquire social capital and the lower classes could share–if not usurp—the habitus of the intellectual elite. These aspirational aspects of consumption and symbolic possessions are the background for some of the critiques of luxury and collecting found in Roman satire. Martial’s disparagement of Eros (Ep. X.80), Mamurra (IX.59), and Charinus (IV.39) emerges from not only an awareness of the convertibility of symbolic and cultural capital, but also a veiled anxiety over self-completion through consumption.

In talking about writing “Losing My Edge,” Murphy says about naming obscure bands at the end of the song:

This is what you do when you know things….Knowing things, knowledge, your attachment to them, or your self-association with other bands or with books or whatever. It’s often this weird amulet that protects you. You’re like ‘I am serious. Look at my library or listen to this. I’m going to list all the books I’ve read and now you know I’m a serious person.’

To this, Terry Gross responds: “I think a lot of people have experienced that. What you read, what you listen to as who you are.”

In this instance, the books or albums are strong indicators of Murphy’s erudition, but talking about the books or music is what really fulfills his identity. There is a knowledge that goes along with the possessions which completes the picture of the real hipster with encyclopedic musical taste and awareness. The habitus of this particular type includes the record collection as well as the esoteric knowledge of, say, the genealogy of CBGB stars.

So I continue to imagine the relationship among identity, status, the house and its contents in the Roman world to include the education–formal or informal–to discuss the display of works of art in the home. The elite habitus, as far as the house was concerned, was comprised of both the material, economic capital and the cultural capital required to discuss it with one’s peers.

And just to bring it back to the house, here’s LCD Soundsystem’s song “Home.”

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So as an NPR dork, I listen weekly to the “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” podcast. It’s funny and it’s also a way to test myself to make sure I have not become completely out of touch with American pop culture and politics during my year in Canada!

So the “Not My Job” guest for last week was Ice-T– known formerly as the original gangsta rapper and currently as the worst actor on Law and Order: SVU. (Seriously, T. Just because it’s ironic that you, of all people, play a cop on TV doesn’t mean that you are really a gifted thespian.)

During the back-and-forth before the Q-and-A of the quiz, the topic of Vanilla Ice came up. This seems to be a perfect case of symbolic self-completion gone horribly wrong.

Part of symbolic self-completion–as I understand it–is assuming the habitus of the desired status. Wear the right clothes, get the right haircut, use the right mannerisms and lingo. But another big part of it is convincing those members of the ideal status group that you do, actually have the right stuff. As Ice-T mentions, even though Vanilla Ice put on the habitus (OK, he didn’t use that word) of the rapper from the street, none of the real street guys were buying it:

one of his mistakes was he came into the rap business saying he was from the street. And we were like, what street, Sesame Street? You know? But that was a mistake. He didnt have to say that. All he had to do was say hey, I’m a white kid, I’m trying to rap, and I want to be accepted. You dont have to lie and say you’re from someplace you’re not, you know?

It sounds as though Vanilla Ice would have been better off attempting to construct an entirely new habitus, rather than trying to appropriate that of the gangstas. Maybe this is why Eminem was so successful as a “white kid trying to rap.”

The distinction between the expectations of the real street rappers and that of Vanilla Ice’s actual practice was one problem; his personal narrative was another.

Like Trimalchio, Vanilla Ice attempted to walk the walk (and was almost successful) as well as talk the talk (which is really where he failed). When it comes to Roman domestic decoration and symbolic self-completion, I believe it is more than simply having the correct kinds of frescoes, statues, etc. in order to convince the audience that one is “a member of the club.” The informed personal narrative, the cultural/academic knowledge, is what completes the picture.

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In which my knowledge of archaeology, ancient culture, religion, etc. is used for television geekery and not academic geekery.

Looking at the Visual Clues: Q&A with Dr. Francesca Tronchin on the Archaeology of Lost

Sadly, I didn’t really put that much effort into my “interview” with friend Pauline. I think there is lots of material in LOST which could be analyzed in terms of classical mythology & literary tropes. And then there is all that Egyptian material to go hog wild with!

Had I known my responses would be published verbatim, I might have tried to sound more erudite! Well, this probably is a good lesson in not taking myself too seriously.

The latest LOST thing which caught my attention is the lighthouse/panopticon. The fact that the original panopticon was invented by Jeremy Bentham–Locke’s Los Angeles alias after leaving the Island–has compelling ramifications for Locke’s role on the Island itself.

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