I’m back! Between attending Worldcon, attending the Royal Geographical Society conference and teaching in Singapore, I’ve been busy of late. As a start on updating you on my activities, I include a video of me presenting my paper “Comparing Colonialisms in The Terror“, contrasting the treatment of colonialism in Dan Simmons’ 2008 novel and AMC’s 2018 adaptation. You can read the draft paper on my Academia.edu site here.
So, to recap: this is a blog post series, based on a 60-minute talk I gave in 2018, on how designers working on space operas secretly use structuralist anthropological concepts to establish character and mood quickly and unobtrusively, and to differentiate locations easily. You can read the introduction here.
By this point, a few people are probably asking what “structuralist anthropology” is, and, yes, why it’s at all relevant. So: this post will be the quick-and-dirty, oversimplifying, explanation (if you want longer and more complicated, I recommend Claude Levi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology, Edmund Leach’s Social Anthropology, Needham’s introduction to his edited volume Right And Left, and Pierre Bourdieu’s essay The Berber House. Yes, there are a lot of French names there– the reason will become obvious in a second. Please also note that the use of Amazon links is indicative only– I’d encourage you to use your local library if you can).
Structuralist anthropology emerged in the 1950s, initially in France (see my recommended reading list above), but with the UK and other places (such as India and South Africa) following close behind (what about North America? While it wasn’t uninfluential, at the time the US and Canada were largely dominated by an emerging culturalist anthropology developed from the works of Franz Boas and his student Ruth Benedict, so took a slightly different approach. Again, longer and more complicated).
The defining characteristic of structuralist anthropology is, essentially, the idea that culture is sort of like language: that people have cultural traits, but underlying these is a sort of “grammar”, which informs the ways in which people possess and express these traits. The initial idea the structuralists had was to drill down through these and identify what’s universal to all humans. While they did identify some things that seem to be common to all human cultures, the problem was that they were expressed differently, sometimes quite radically differently, all over the place: for instance, marriage, as an institution, is arguably universal, but the idea that “marriage is always (or even usually) between one man and one woman” is wrong, dead wrong, and the idea that every person in a given society should, ideally, be married, is also not a given.
Eventually, having figured this out, the structuralists instead wound up focusing on comparison and context: looking at the different ways different cultures address the issues humans face around the world, though without losing sight of the initial premise about culture as a kind of language, with an underlying grammar.
One key point to raise here is the idea of binary oppositions. Structuralists fairly rapidly turned up the fact that human societies love developing informal classifying systems (what we call “native categories”, and incidentally I’ve written about this too), which often revolve around oppositions between categories: nature-culture, raw-cooked, female-male, left-right, yin-yang, etc. But again: this is complicated and problematic, and these binary systems are far from universally expressed or interpreted (“left”, for instance, is “sinister” in the UK, but “sacred” in Japan). Many of my readers might find that list I just gave familiar and even self-evident, but that’s because my blog stats show most of you are from the UK and the USA, or secondarily from Australia and Canada, where all of those are, well, your native categories.
See how this works?
An example from the literature is the idea, analysed in an essay by Sherry Ortner, that “Female is to Male as Nature is to Culture”: this spawned an entire (very good) edited volume by Carol McCormack and postmodernist living legend Marilyn Strathern, coming to the conclusion that this wasn’t universal, and, even in places where it is, the meanings of “nature” and “culture” and their symbolic relationships to gender aren’t necessarily the same. Furthermore, that it changes over time: what European people in the 18th century understood by making that sort of opposition isn’t what Europeans mean now.
What has all this got to do with space opera? Hang on to your tricorders, we’re going back in….
Turned up a surprise on YouTube the other day: apparently, not only did they record my keynote speech at Kristu Jayanti College (Bangalore/Mangaluru) in 2015, but they posted the video on Youtube!
Here’s me talking about anthropology and business, on a hot and humid but rather lovely day.
Continued from last episode…
Our guide for the tour of Body In White, the area where the unpainted car is assembled, is Tommy. He explains that he used to work there for 20 years and only retired recently. Throughout the tour, staff keep coming up to him and shaking his hand or hugging him and wanting to chat. Tommy’s delivery is not the greatest, but the robots are fascinating to watch; they remind me of animatronic dinosaurs (same technology powers both, I’m sure), and I keep expecting one to bend over for a closer look at me. I mostly see men in the BIW shop, with one White and stout woman. They wear jeans rather than metal-free trousers, but then I suppose chipping the paint isn’t an issue here.
On the way to the Assembly area, one of the young German women takes over to talk about Paint, which she says we can’t go into “because of the dust”; she doesn’t elaborate, which must puzzle most people on the tour (having interviewed people in the Paint Shop before, I know that special measures are taken to keep the area free of airborne substances that might cause the paint to be uneven). Her command of English is poor, she is mostly reading from a prepared script which she doesn’t seem to totally understand. To top it off the microphone she is using isn’t built for outdoor use and reception is faulty; she tries twice and then we walk to Assembly in silence. I feel very sorry for her, and throughout the rest of the tour I see the other guides giving her hugs and pep-talks.
In Assembly, Jim takes over. His delivery is more fluid and humourous than Tommy’s; he keeps talking about how the right component is always delivered for the right model of car, “always, always, no, honestly it is.” He also salts in little jokes—most of which revolve around getting the wrong components on the wrong car model– and bits of trivia, like pointing out that the wheels of one car are reflective: “that’s to NASCAR standards, North American System car. So if I saw one of those with a right-hand drive, I’d be suspicious.” He too is greeted by a lot of the people on the line, patted on the back, hugged, and so forth. Small pickups are driving back and forth up and down the lines, bringing components and people at speed. Blue Shift appear to be the ones online today. Tommy asks me if I know which shift I’m on yet, so I tell him. At 3:15, a small pickup truck drives through honking and a cheer plus catcalls go up on the line: John says that this is the one-hour-till-shift-change signal. We are in perpetual danger of being run down by the small pickups.
On the way back Pris asks what I thought. I said I thought it looked OK. “I’m less afraid now, there wasn’t anything there I couldn’t see myself doing,” she says. I say that I wouldn’t want to be the one on the last station, a petrol pump where a small amount of petrol is dispensed into the vehicles as they come off the line. “Oh no, you’d be standing there all day with a silly grin,” she says.
Back at the info centre, we discover that not only is the place locked, but the person with the key has disappeared. The German lady rushes off to find them; Mike suggests that those who want to smoke do so, but Pris says “My cigarettes are in the building!” She bums one off Saeed, and says “Lesson number one, always keep your cigarettes with you.” Finally a harassed-looking administrator turns up in a pickup with the key and lets us in. I get my bag, drop my stuff and go.
After the presentations, we are taken to a big building near the carpark, and introduced to Pete, a man with glasses and a goatee. He tells us to put on lab coats, and gives us battery sets with earphones and safety glasses. I ask if I can leave the tour early, as I’d already done the tour with my supervisor the previous month, and he says no. He tells us to wait in the area beyond until the tour guides arrive. This is a wide space with tables and chairs at one end, and two displays on the wall; one is of the history of the Car Factory and the other is of its current operations. The operational one emphasises the modernity of the proceedings and the ergonomics and general comfort of the staff. I’m starting to feel a bit like a battery-farmed hen. Joining us are two Black women and an Asian man.
I strike up a conversation with the hawk-nosed man. He is called Saeed and was born in the Middle East, but his parents are East African. He has been in this town for 16 years and is studying in London part-time. I also talk with the Asian man; he and the two women have just started in Paint.
After about a fifteen minute wait we are herded into an auditorium at the back of the room behind black partitions by two older English men and two young German women. We are told to fill up the front row first, then the next one. There is an LCD screen, currently displaying the error message that the computer is locked. One young woman tries to unlock it for several minutes, then someone is dispatched to find an administrator. An older man stands up in front and introduces himself as Jim; he says that this is a new tour which they are going to be giving to other people, starting with a vintage car club on the weekend; we are the guinea pigs. He suggests to the girls that we start with the video. He passes around sticky tape for people to cover their rings with.
The video is about 8 minutes long and appears to have been translated from the German, without much fluidity. There are cumbersome phrases along the lines of “High Performance Stylings” which would no doubt have sounded better in the original. It shows us montages of cars, a potted history of the company, and an overview of all the major Car Factories worldwide, with an emphasis on the Western ones. There is some branding: the car this Factory produces is cool, chic and sassy. Apparently.
After the video, there is another struggle to unlock the computer; the administrator herself tries and fails. The first woman is then dispatched up to the podium with a sheaf of notes. She gives us a talk about the company (most of which was already covered in the video), its productivity, its worldwide focus. This is obviously aimed at investors rather than at the likes of us. At the end of the talk we are informed that the two older men, Jim and Tommy, will be showing us around the Body in White and Assembly plants, while one of the women will tell us about Paint as we walk by it.
Continued next episode…
Continued from last episode…
The union rep is about fifteen minutes late. We hang about, some talk quietly, one of the black men talks on his mobile. I start reading the book I have with me, Wild Swans, but Pris wants to talk. She talks about how the Car Factory is a real local landmark; it used to extend over to the other side of the road, where there are houses now, “but they’ll put up houses anywhere there’s a spare inch of land, won’t they?” The young blond man on my other side complains that he is sick of union presentations as he has sat through far too many. One black man with a hawk nose and Middle Eastern accent is talking with the others in his row about South Africa, specifically the animals you find there. Sara, sensing the boredom, starts everyone playing a word game where everyone has to come up with a different country for each letter of the alphabet (I get G: Germany). The hawk-nosed man is particularly good at this, whispering hints to people unfortunate enough to get stuck with Q and W. Nobody could think of one for X; Jo claimed she could but didn’t enlighten us. When we got through with countries we started on rock bands (I’m G again: Garbage), and had gotten up to H when the rep arrived.
The rep is named Liam; he looks like a skinnier, older version of Noel Gallagher. He has a very monotonous delivery, stream-of-consciousness, and leans against the table with his arms folded. He says that 96% of the workforce are in the union. He outlines the benefits of joining: the first, he says, is the accident cover. He tells us about a man paralysed from the waist down in an industrial accident, and how the union were able to get him and his wife a settlement which allowed them money for a customised bungalow, car etc., although he never returned to work again. He tells more stories of equally horrible accidents. He adds that the union provides good fatal-accident cover, and that they have a free will service, which, he says, would cost you 40-200 pounds in the outside world. He goes on to say that the union will also provide representation in cases of disciplinary hearings, and tells us more war stories about these.
He passes out the form, and everyone, by this point thoroughly convinced of the benefits of union membership, fills them out. He asks if anyone’s already a member, and the blond guy says he is, and names his branch (a big hint that he’s worked at a Car Factory before). Liam asks him to reregister for here so that he can get more rapid cover. Liam emphasises that we should fill out all the fields of the address form; he says “it’s no good saying 10 Charlsbury Lane, thinking everybody knows where that is; this goes back to Newcastle.” He adds that we needn’t bother with the payroll number, though, as he can add that.
Continued next episode…
Mike explains about uniforms; we will be given T-shirts to reflect our shift. People on weekends are the Yellow Shift, and get four yellow T-shirts; people on rotating shifts are either on Red or Blue shift and get four T-shirts in the relevant colour; people on Permanent Nights get two red and two blue. The older woman, Pris, asks me why that is, and I suggest that it is to blend in with whichever rotating shift is currently on. We will also get black trousers, made with no metal parts because it might damage the paintwork. Likewise Mike says that people working in certain areas will need steel-toe boots, but that in other areas these are verboten, because they might damage the paint; most, he says, wear trainers. He says that we are not to wear uncovered rings or watches; tape and sports wristbands will be provided. He gives us a health and safety talk, and warns us against being offstation; on the line 37 cars come by an hour, so if you take a 2-minute bathroom break you’ve missed a car or two already. Smoking outside of the designated areas is also streng verboten.
He passes around sheets giving the shift patterns. There is one person on Weekend and about six or so on Permanent Nights. He then gets those of us not on Weekend or Permanent Nights to pick our shifts, by dint of saying that there are three spots to start at 6 tomorrow and the rest will do the night shift. I wind up on night shift.
He then passes out laminated cards depicting the dress code, and on the other side a diagram of How to Push a Car. Mike jokes about the cards, saying they’re valuable and rare: he then says, “Seriously, I really love this place, my father worked for Car Factory for thirty years.”
Sara discovers that all but the last six of us have now got our ID cards and sends the rest of us downstairs.
The six of us line up outside and wait: Pris goes first. I talk with the blond girl about the weather, while some of the boys go outside to smoke. After Pris comes out, I go in, and am directed to a table around the corner where an elderly man positions me on a stool in front of a digital camera. “Say happy worker!” he says. I do. He then asks me to do it again as he erased the first one. I do and get my card a minute later. When I come back up Sara gives me a sheet on which to fill out my shirt and trouser size; we start talking about my project as she wants to know more about it, but as it could take a while I say I’ll explain more fully at the break. I never do; she vanishes at lunch and I don’t see her again.