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Chapter 7: Phone Home: E. T. as a Saga of the American Family


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Chapter 7: Phone Home: E. T. as a Saga of the American Family
1. Is 2001 an exception? Maybe, but just maybe; it’s hard to say anything definite about that thoroughly ambiguous movie.

2. Aliens (the first of two sequels to Alien) is a memorable exception.

3. He would not have fared as well as Scotty if hauled before the vindictive old fools of an earlier generation’s House Committee on Un-American Activities).

4. This property of American myth validates, in my view, the (rather peculiar) use I have made of Lévi-Strauss’s structural analysis of myth throughout this work.

5. The innate vs. acquired feature seems so locked into the gender distinction in cultures around the world because women in and of themselves possess the generative power of giving birth, whereas men can transform social relations only through their instrumental actions. Since, as we have seen, the Life Force is dialectically paired with the Death Force in the semiotic of cultural generativity, it follows that if women control one they must have some strong association with the other. Thus widowed, embittered old women are feared for what they are: foreboding reminders of the inherent malevolence of existence. Isolated, Grouchy Old Men, on the other hand, are feared for what they may do: their antisocial behavior is translated through spirit familiars into deadly attacks of sickness.

6. Much as the spacetime travelers in Einstein’s special theory of relativity receive “information” about each other’s lives (such as how rapidly each party is aging) that does not correspond at all with the experience of the sending party.

7. See Leach’s classic monograph, Political Systems of Highland Burma, page 278.

Chapter 8: Conclusions

1. Witness the instant, well-oiled global marketing campaign that catapulted Jurassic Park to the top of the supergrosser charts in a few short weekss. Such a system was nonexistent when James Bond first appeared in Doctor No.

2. See, for example, M. Mitchell Waldrop’s Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos.

3. The problem of boundaries and variation, however, was already at the forefront of the work of Eigen’s predecessor, Charles Darwin. In this world of paradox, it is delightful to realize that “The Origin of Species” is a colossal misnomer, for the book has less to say about “species” than about the problem of understanding variation. Edward Wilson, in his ongoing eulogy to the “species” concept, would do well to reconsider Darwin’s message, which, for all its doggedly methodical presentation, is amazingly (post)modern in its concern with the fragmentary and fragmenting minutiae of life.

4. See John Gribbin’s In the Beginning for a thought-provoking statement of this view.

5. And Michael Herzfeld has even given us Anthropology through the Looking Glass.


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About the Author

As with other boundaries explored in this book, the line between cultural anthropology and philosophy is infinitely complex. I know something of its contours, for I have wandered over that contested terrain since undergraduate days at Reed College, where I pursued an interdivisional major in anthro­pology (in the “division” of the Social Sciences) and philosophy (in the “division” of the Humanities). Following Reed, I studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, where I received a couple of degrees in the subject.

I have conducted fairly traditional ethnographic research among Arawak and Carib groups of Guyana and the Guyanese-Brazilian border. I have also done somewhat less traditional ethnographic research in several Caribbean locations, and carried out what some would doubtlessly consider downright wacky field work in the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Disneyland, and, of course, movie theatres across the country.

Since 1988 I have been director of the Center for Peripheral Studies, P. O. Box 477, Palm Springs CA 92263. The Center is a little think shop I have operated when I am not out delivering pizzas, selling houses, running a small hotel, or otherwise engaged in the Business of living. The work of the Center is along two broad (and, of course, highly convoluted) fronts. One front is the theoretical enterprise of understanding the nature of sapience, particularly in the guise of an artifactual intelligence (our own, parochial version of sapience). In the glory days of philosophy, this enterprise went under the heading of the “theory of meaning.” But that was before they dug that fateful scrap of typescript out of the rubble of writing Wittgenstein left at his death: “Der Irrtum ist zu sagen, Meinen bestehe in etwas.” Not a very comforting parting thought there, Ludwig! So if the mistake is to say that meaning consists in something, then it is incumbent on us to say what we can about the general activity and grounding conditions of sapience. I make a stab in that direction in the book before you, and continue to plug away at it in two electronic, word-processed Zettel: “Culture, Mind, and Physical Reality: An Anthropological Essay” (which you may find on the Center’s web site, ), which applies cultural analytic thinking to the debate now raging over the nature of mind or consciousness; and “Where Is Everybody? Cultural Anthropology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” (a very preliminary version of which you also may find on the web site), which (like Barry Sadler’s song) is pretty much about what it says.

The other front of research, thinking, and writing at the Center has to do with practice (as the Marxists used to like to call it): locking horns (in an intellectual and not-so-intellectual way) with what is actually going on around you, trying to figure out what makes turn-of-the-century America (or, at any rate, its bizarre, southern California version) really/reely work. Here reelity continually overwhelms reality, for vast structures of posturing and “spin” utterly take over the flow of events in what was once fondly called the “real world.” Unless you happened to be orbiting Neptune at the time, you, too, witnessed the famous “low speed chase” of O. J. Simpson and the carnivalesque events that followed, and know exactly what I am talking about. So we here at the Center our thronged, Whitmanesque multitudes are up to our cere­brums in The Trial, (which even Kafka could not have imagined) and are beginning to fold an account of it into other ongoing studies of the Super Bowl (the magical XXX is almost upon us!), Shamu’s Night Magic at San Diego’s Sea World, and the bonobo enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. To these ongoing efforts have been added two completed studies of a disintegrating America: “Jonestown: An Ethnographic Essay;” and “Shit Happens: An Immoralist’s Take on 9/11 in Terms of Self-Organized Criticality.” Both essays apply and attempt to develop a Nietzschean anthropology, which coneviably may offer a breath of life to a institutional(ized) cultural anthropology near its last gasp. Both essays are available at .

The ongoing studies mentioned above, of San Diego’s Zoo and Sea World, obviously build on the cultural analysis of the ecology movement presented in the present work, particularly in Chapter 6 (on Jaws). And, you may be relieved to learn, here at last cultural analysis reveals its practical, “applied” side. For we are now very much engaged in two ecological cam­paigns for the next millennium.

One, the Save the Smelts Foundation, aims at restoring the numbers and, just as important, the dignity, of a much-ignored, much-abused species. If you have ever visited San Diego’s Sea World and lined up at one of the concession stands dotted around the theme park to buy dolphin and walrus treats, you know what I am talking about. You pay your dollar and you get, served up in a red-and-white checked paper container just like ballpark weenies come in, an entire little family of smelts Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis Smelt their cold, dead eyes gazing up at you in the silent ignominy of bait, lying there waiting to become tidbits for far luckier species (with far better publicists) to munch upon.

The Center’s other campaign/project is the Chicken Oasis, modeled after the many “pet oases” that have sprung up across the country to save abandoned dogs and cats. The Chicken Oasis will be a sanctuary for the hundreds of thousands of “layers” that live a hellish life in the egg factories (not farms) that dot formerly rural America. Now, rather than being destroyed at the end of their useful lives and puréed into the fecal sludge served up in our TV dinners and chicken soup, these wretched creatures will be granted a reprieve. At the Chicken Oasis, they will live out their few remaining days happily scratching in the soil and socializing with their fellow survivors.

This, at any rate, is our vision. But it will take your contribution (preferably in large, unmarked bills) to make it come true. So open your heart and your wallet dear reader, and give so that we might heal. Yea-ah! Yea-ah! Hee-al! Hee-al! Save the Smelts and the Chickens! God loves you. We love you. Hallelujah! Cowabunga! Aloha!

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