Ruining the Joke: The Logic of #ZodiacTed

by Richard Kaminski

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a masked killer stalked Northern California, killing couples and taunting police officers and investigators with his complex cryptographic letters. This killer called himself the Zodiac and while his identity was never discovered at the time, a growing online movement believes they know who has committed these acts: Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

The #ZodiacTed movement had been gaining steam on social media, attracting attention from mainstream news outlets because of the mix of its absurd claims and evidence and its refusal to break character or crack even the slightest knowing smile. As Esquire noted in a piece on the topic, the roots of this movement were first laid in 2013 and have simply snowballed from there. But where exactly did it spring from and what does it reflect about the way individuals interact with and understand politics in the current climate.

Cracked director and socially awkward president buff Daniel O’Brien noted in a podcast about the 2016 U.S. election (whilst making some wildly inaccurate predictions) that the current election cycle is wading into unknown territory because it is the first election being filtered through social media’s unique reactions to the offline world. While the Internet and social media have existed during previous election cycles, they were in relatively young forms. Memes did not exist in the form they do now and as such, provide us a unique litmus test for the large political system. Obama is an icon of the meme-sphere, running the gamut from “Thanks Obama” () to Joe Biden’s, well, entire existence. Memes are a reaction by generally young, socially engaged individuals to a world that seems comically absurd. They are distillations of youthful interpretations of a sphere that, while massively powerful and influential in their daily life, they are cynical of. And when an individual resonates with them in the way Bernie Sanders appears to, memes are the method by which they reflect this resonance.

Understood in this light, #ZodiacTed makes sense then as a meme utilized as a method of protest and resistance with Ted Cruz as a perfect figure. As has been noted, there is something off-putting about not only Cruz’s demeanor, but his very existence. While he is seemingly strongly disliked by his fellow politicians and others who know him, personally familiarity of the man does not seem to be necessary. “Backpfeifengesicht” (a German colloquialism meaning “a face in need of a slap”) has been attached to his name by a college roommate. A neurologist ruminated on the unnerving effect of his facial expressions, noting that his emotions, actions, and voluntary facial expressions often don’t align with the involuntary clues that the human mind subconsciously learns to understand. The effect of this is an odd dissociation, not unlike the uncanny valley, in which something is almost human, but slightly off in a fundamental way that human can’t help but feel on edge. This almost-but-not-quite-human revulsion could then be taken to its absurd conclusion and mapped onto another extreme outlier of unrelatable (in)humanity.

As all are aware, the facts of the Zodiac Killer’s crimes make it readily apparent that Ted Cruz and he are not one in the same. This fact, however, makes #ZodiacTed the perfect response to the current political situation. As John Oliver notes in his segment on Donald Drumpf (#MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain), Drumpf “doesn’t even know he’s lying…he just doesn’t care about what the truth is”—a sentiment that can easily be extended to numerous Republican candidates, both active and not. This is a different beast than the spinning of facts and figures that is unfortunately commonplace in politics. This is an adamant disregard for the truth, a “Nah-nah-nah-I-I-can’t-hear-you” approach that allows candidates to deny reality on ideological terms while fighting for quips, sounds bites, and support. #ZodiacTed, then, is a protest perfectly mirroring this behavior. It bypasses the usual concerns and reasons against supporting a candidate and saying instead that a candidate is so odious, the only way to properly convey it is by making them into a monster. #ZodiacTed twists this extreme abhorrence of facts to its own ends, sidestepping debates and arguments using logic and reason and thereby avoiding the old saying that stupidity brings you down to its level and then beats you with experience. It is a new expression of cynicism with the system as is and in its heights of absurdity, attempts to show the depths to which the U.S. political process has fallen.


Rephrasing Old Truths: A Response Briefly Touching on Behavioral Economics, Qualitative Insight, and the Sociology of Knowledge

by Richard Kaminski

Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow is heralded for its far-reaching, psychological critique against the conception of the ideal economical human, rationally weighing choices and deciding her way through the world for a more realistic portrayal of the occasionally irrational and quick-deciding person we all truly know ourselves to be. He does this through a description of the numerous biases, heuristics, and efficient strategies we all use to conserve as much energy as possible.

As noted by Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen in their treatise on applying the humanities and social science findings to the business world, while behavioral economics takes a step forward by believing and treating humans as capable of irrational choice, it “still cling[s] to the fundamental idea that people have predefined, immutable preferences, that everything can be understood if we only ask people what they think and feel” (2014; 3). This sense runs rampant within Kahneman’s work, in which reactions and responses that run counter to the rational economic model are often broken down into economic utility and partnered with explanations as to why they are less than optimal. Underlying these discussions is a belief that even if the rational choice is not the one being made, then it is the one we should be striving towards.  Knowledge of the concepts, biases, and heuristics described within Thinking, Fast and Slow does not cure one of these irrational decision-making habits, but attempts to prompt us to be aware of them so we do not fall for these “traps” and provides a handbook of sorts for the marketer to exploit them. Behavioral economics works in a frame of mind that says that even in our irrational choices we are striving towards rationality—we merely become distracted or falter along the way.  And even these failures are rationally understandable.

Diving deeper into Madsbjerg and Rasmussen brief statement, the use of behavioral economics believes that we can trace why individuals make less than optimal choices, parse out the flawed logic behind them, assign them to a category of thought processes, and then train individuals to be more aware of these actions and hopefully refrain from committing them so quickly and frequently in the future. And while behavioral economic thought does concede that decisions are often made un/subconsciously and with little time or conscious effort, it still holds to a belief that one can be made aware of the path to making a decision.

This framework strips away and ignores any context other that what happens within one’s own head from decision-making, a faulty leap especially as behavioral economic thought becomes a driving force in the consumer/market research world (primarily when discussing qualitative research methods). For instance, in his chapter on the human tendency to overestimate the occurrence of rare events, Kahneman describes how during visits to Israel in the early 2000s (a time marked by increased numbers of suicide bombings in buses), he found himself nervous around buses when driving or waiting at a red light. He would try to put as much of a distance between himself and the buses as possible as quickly as possible, even though he knew that he was more likely to be injured or killed by a non-terrorist traffic accident. He details how this discomfort he felt was driven primarily from his unconscious system of thought, which overpowered his rational knowledge of the rarity of these attacks (2011; 322-333).

What Kahneman does not discuss here, and what I am afraid may be left out in applying his principles, is an understanding of the socio-cultural conditions that allow these fears and overestimation of rare events to occur. In what ways are terrorist attacks (or large lottery winnings, to use his other introductory example) focused on to such a degree so as to foster an obsessive belief in their inevitable occurrence? What is to be gained by the current order and way of life by encouraging these obsessions? And how, then, do these trickle down and begin to affect individuals’ daily lives, thoughts, actions, and choices? These irrational systems of thought cannot and do not exist in a vacuum and to continually treat them as such does not demolish the pure rational economic person model of thought. Instead, it merely replaces this model with a slightly more nuanced, but still very much atomized version of itself.

A unique feature of this mechanism of thought is its rapid adoption within the business world and the tendency of many individuals to herald it as completing eye-opening and innovative. The heuristics and biases it probes are not new and are not unknown to us. Anthropologists and sociologists have been making these arguments for quite some time and qualitative methods (notably participant observation and other strains of ethnography) have the ignorance of the individual to their true decision-making process as central tenets of their research. They are foundational assumptions from which invaluable insights into people, groups, institutions, and societies have sprung. But unfortunately, these methods are still often treated with mistrust and skepticism. At least until a “hard” science replicates some of these underlying logics.

Works Cited

Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Madsbjerg, Christian and Mikkel B. Rasmussen. 2014. The Moment of Clarity. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

“Changing Radically the Eating Habits of Our Race:” The Futurist Cookbook as Prophecy and a Call to Arms

by Richard Kaminski

The Futurist artistic movement founded by F.T. Marinetti in the early 1900s was surprisingly controversial and influential, despite its existence almost as a footnote in modern art history. Futurism began as a literary movement, but expanded outward into painting and sculpture, architecture, fashion, and performance, laying bare its hatred of and frustration with a culture clinging to the dregs of the past. Perhaps one of its most quixotic features was its views on and treatment of the culinary arts. Within The Futurist Cookbook (originally published circa 1930-1932), Marinetti and other Futurists launched both a critique and practical joke on chefs’ and diners’ understandings of food. Unfortunately, this endeavor was not as monumentally successful as hoped. However, revisiting the work is illuminating. This manifesto works as a guidebook of sorts for the modernist cuisine of today and, as such, provides an interesting way to understand the often difficult and divisive works of such chefs as Ferrán Adrià, Grant Achatz, and René Redzepi and the shifting culinary landscape.

For Marinetti, cuisine is artwork and should be treated as such. Therefore, constant innovation and experimentation are integral parts of making good food, regardless of the success of every individual meal. Futurist cuisine called for the paring down or building up (as needed for effect) of ingredients beyond the conventions of the time. Unconventional flavors were paired to delight the tongue with unexpected contradictions. Meat and pastry were piled onto and within one another as tall as possible, then baked and covered with honey and brought out in magnificent manner (Marinetti 2014: 37-38; 193). To fully appreciate the artwork, forks and knives were removed from the table and food was grasped and pulled apart by hand (Marinetti 2014: 38). Every sense was involved in the meal. The texture of the food was integral for whetting one’s appetite, while the selected music or the noise of trumpets and engines were invigorations between bites, jarring diners between the internal process of smell and taste and the intrusion of trumpet blasts meant to disrupt the reverie before we retreated too far inside ourselves (Marinetti 2014: 38-39; 137-138; 166-169). . Beyond the scent of the food itself, Marinetti required perfumes to be sprayed into the air between and during some courses, meant as counterpoints and enhancements to the consumption (ibid.). Doing away with the perfumers, chefs like Grant Achatz at Alinea have devised their own ways of slowly releasing very specific scents through a course in order to enhance appetite and call forth very specific experiences and sensations (Spinning Plates 2012).

Reading through the cookbook, it’s not uncommon to read recipes that take one aback because of their bizarre flavors and downright unappetizing descriptions. And nowadays, going through any hip menu pairing kim chi and truffles with mango and melon can have the same effect. But then as now, that was the point. Flavor is often sacrificed for inventiveness and the courage to push the envelope beyond what one would think to eat, if only to puzzle the diner and evoke feelings and questions that would have otherwise been lain dormant.

Similarly, Futurist cuisine places great focus on the design and atmosphere of the restaurant or banquet hall, believing that where one eats is just as important to a full appreciation on a meal as what the diners are eating. Some of these specifications are relatively simple, such as requiring Futurist artwork to be present for the meal (although the emphasis given to this artwork varied—Prampolini was commissioned to paint panels to decorate the Il Padiglione in Paris while contemplating Boccioni’s masterful The Football Player [more popularly known as Dynamism of a Soccer Player] was integral for Summer Luncheon for Painters and Sculptors). Restaurants were crafted down to the millimeter. Every building material and facet of lighting were considered, with some meals requiring constantly shifting lighting and windows opened at specific times in order to enhance the individual immersion (see “The Great Futurist Banquets” in Marinetti 2014: 75-131; specifically discussions of the HOLY PALATE restaurant). Modern restaurants reflect this concern. Alinea in Chicago is designed so that diners pass the kitchen on their way to the restaurant (Spinning Plates 2012). Wood is used to help evoke a warm and inviting atmosphere while other restaurants are disarmingly sparse and minimal so in order not to distract from the meal at hand. This continual concern that the area outside the food could impact the depth of experience within the meal was of utmost concern to the Futurists and is a philosophy that modern chefs owe to the group, whether they realize it or not.

Other locations are rather constraining. Ideally, several aerodinners would take place in an airplane, some 3,000 feet above in the atmosphere, where the engines were believed to invigorate the appetite and tantalize the palate. Warm meat was a luxury for these meals, with Marinetti believing the rapid loss of heat was to be expected and a willing sacrifice for such a unique locale (Marinetti 2014: 166-169).

This prophecy of extravagant meals is coming true to some degree. Top-tier airlines are hiring Michelin starred private chefs to design menus for their business and first class passengers, crafting meals that may be better than what some people eat on the ground. However, this is still not far enough. With the emerging importance of gourmet food on planes for those willing to pay for it, it should be possible to do a true Futurist aerodinner. Ideally, this experience will be coordinated with an Italian airline, but unfortunately, it appears that Marinetti’s hopes for a new Italian focus on the present and disregard for ancient history have yet to take hold. The relics of dead masters are still revered and a general unwillingness to forge a strong contemporary identity holds strong, so an Italian curated aerodinner will probably not happen and we may have to look outward to satisfy one of the Futurist dreams.

Perhaps the strongest, and at the time, most controversial section of Marinetti’s manifesto of a new Italian cuisine was his disdain for the “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” (2014: 34) of pastasciutta. Pasta required more energy to digest and break down. It bloated its eaters, breeding “lassitude, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism” (ibid.) instead of vigor, life, and courage, the ideals of Marinetti’s new Italy. Undoubtedly, the Futurist disdain for macaroni and spaghetti had some of its roots in their distaste for all things traditional and established, but Marinetti also cited more health- and nutrition-based reasons for this antipathy. Pastasciutta was significantly less nutritious and efficient than other foods (at least according to Futurist doctors). However, regardless of the veracity of these claims, similar ideas can be seen echoed in more contemporary diet crazes and views. Carbs, with pasta and breads as the main culprits, were declared the enemy in the wildly popular Atkins Diet, a tendency that exists in the guise of other high-proten/low-carb diets. There are moral panics over “wheat belly” and “gluten free” has become an empty proxy for “healthy” and “good for you,” regardless of what science may say. These diet crazes are jumping on the belief that what you put inside your body is directly relatable to your actions and moral character, an ideology that did not begin with Marinetti, but one that he spread with particular gusto and with the belief that his thoughts could drastically change and improve the well-being of Italy and help facilitate a new culture unrivaled in its inventiveness.

A thorny area is the marked difference between “local” and “traditional” influences in this branch of cuisine. A favorite meal of Ferrán Adrià’s is fresh Catalan prawns ate at a small eatery in Roses, Spain. He claims that his work is an attempt to reach, through different means, the perfection he finds in this simple meal (Bourdain 2007: 210). Chef José Adrés cites that the products of elBulli are directly related to traditional Spanish and Catalan culinary traditions (Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations 2011). ElBulli was inventive, but firmly rooted in traditional Spanish cuisine, flavors, and ingredients. Even at the Adrià’s other restaurants, it is not uncommon for familiar or traditional flavors to be reached by more oblique means (although some of Ferran’s most well known preparations, such as his “spherified olive” do succeed in producing a completely unique culinary experience). Marinetti wants all foods to break out of the bounds of “tradition” and how thing are done. For him, local ingredients (local being loosely defined as he allowed Futurists to source ingredients from Italian posts in Africa) should be the starting point for completely new meals and food, specifically designed to not just complicate but eschew expectations of what Italian cooking means. In this regard, Denmark’s noma may be closer to Marinetti’s ideal. Here, the focus on foraging and small farms for ingredients exists with a slightly more stark departure from Nordic cuisine as a tradition (see also Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown 2013). Futurist cuisine felt the local should supersede traditional whenever possible and should emphasize pushing culinary expectations and experience into completely unfamiliar territories (for his discussion on “xenomania” and cuisine, see Marinetti 2014: 67-74).

The recent creation of the hyper-nutritious Soylent was an odd touch point for culinary history, causing journalists to question how we perceive food and nutrition. Designed by a computer engineer, Soylent is a powder designed to deliver all of a person’s required calories and nutrients in a few smoothies, potentially eliminating the need to eat food as we currently understand it. In a Vice documentary on the product, Soylent’s creator Rob Rhinehart shared that the intention of Soylent is not to completely replace organic food, but instead to divorce it from its nutrient requirements. Sharing how much he loves a ripe tomato, he discusses how the wide adoption of Soylent will allow more traditional meals to be greater appreciated as events without the need for concern about whether we are also receiving complete and proper nutrition from what we eat.

This idea was first discussed about a century earlier. Marinetti prophesized that in an ideal world, Futurist cuisine would exist alongside a pill or powder designed specifically for nutrition. This supplement would be distributed to all people by the Italian state, ensuring their continued health and survival (Marinetti 2014: 93). For the Futurists, then, Futurist cuisine would be the first concerted effort to create a theory of food separate from nutritional value. They would paint meals as an artistic and aesthetic experience first and foremost. As such, ideas of balance and restraint would be done away with and food could more readily join in to the general Futurist plan of embedding art more readily into everyday experience where its excess and inventiveness will propel society into the unknown future where even more avant-garde artwork and culture can be created and used to decimate life as we know it.

What does this all mean, though? While I have convincingly traced the roots of modern boundary-pushing cuisine to an early Italian avant-garde movement, why should we care? What does this tell us about how we live now? It is common knowledge that one of the best ways to learn about people is to look at the rites and rituals around their food and meals. But that method is more reflective. It tells us about their history and how there were as a people. Very rarely does it tells us how they are at present and almost never how they may one day be. That is what Futurist cuisine hoped to achieve and what the very best of modernist cuisine successfully does. It illustrates the potential of human innovation and traces the possibilities of cultural growth and advancement. This is what the art in all fields is supposed to do. In comparison to literature, painting, sculpture, and music, the culinary arts are lagging behind in this ideal. And have been for a long time.

Speaking of the works of Ferrán Adrià and elBulli, Anthony Bourdain states that “a high-risk, high-wire act like El Bulli demands questions of its diners as well. Big questions. Is it food? Or is it novelty? And is it ‘good’—in the traditional sense of that word (whatever that might be)?” (2007: 206). The Futurist culinary work provides the foundation for this type of work answers this question. These meals are artistic experiences, ideally novel and unexpected. Their existence as food is merely incidental and they are “good” only to the degree that they provoke an aesthetic experience in their diners. What Marinetti wished was for people to stop resorting to tradition as an excuse to push themselves and others in all areas of life, a desire that was ignored in his own time. Luckily, the current trends in cooking might be fulfilling his wish and helping to elevate food to its proper place of regard in the aesthetic pantheon.

Works Cited

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Episode no. 7-12 “El Bulli,” first broadcast 1 August 2011 by The Travel Channel.

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. “Copenhagen,” first broadcast 6 October 2013 by CNN.

Bourdain, Anthony. 2007. The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones. New York: Bloomsbury: 203-210.

Marinetti, F.T. 2014. The Futurist Cookbook. Suzanne Brill (Trans). Lesley Chamberlain (Ed.). London: Penguin Books.

Spinning Plates. 2012. Dir. Joseph Levy. Chaos Theory Entertainment.

What Does “Local” Mean and Does it Matter?

by Richard Kaminski

In 2013, skateboarding’s well-respected online archive and historical record the Chrome Ball Incident ceased regular operation. The website’s mastermind, the mononymous Chops went out with a bang, posting a long string of amazing interviews with an attention to detail and history that is impressive and fine-tuned.

Within this finale, Chops pulled out a trump card in the form of an interview with the enigmatic and highly opinionated Bobby Puleo. While this is not the first time he made these comments, Puleo spoke out against “spot raping” and “tourist” skaters who visit an area only to be carted around by locals from one famous spot to the next without spending any time actually skating the streets and exploring their surroundings.

Within this article, Puleo specifically mentions the (at the time) recently released Mark Suciu “Welcome to Adidas” part which was filmed entirely in Philadelphia over fall 2012/winter 2013. Couched beneath an admission of Suciu’s talent were comments by Bobby Puleo questioning the authenticity of Suciu’s use of the city. Rather than viewing this as an “ode to Philly” or the logical conclusion of a skate rat who looks up to and emulates the East Coast skate aesthetic (see John Rattray’s article on Suciu and Philly in Thrasher 394, May 2013: pgs. 100-107 and Suciu’s YBAm interview in The Skateboard Mag 110, May 2013: pgs. 76-85), Puleo believes that Suciu is “biting people’s shit” while being carted around the city by “true” locals on the Adidas “gravy train” (which includes committing the unforgivable crimes of giving him money for food and probably “fly[ing] him home when he gets homesick and wants to see Mom”).[i]

Bold claims to be sure, especially against one of the current “golden boys” of skating, that pose some interesting questions of what “being a local” means in the context of not only skating, but subcultures more generally. When does one become a “local” of a city? Is it merely by birth? If so, then very few people can claim to be a local in many areas. Like authenticity and obscenity, “local” seems to be a predominately definitionless designation, tossed around primarily as a way for accepted individuals to control the flow and standing of more tenuous participants. Again, like the term “authentic” (which I previously discussed here), that this term is mostly without inherent meaning does not mean it is inconsequential. The idea of “local” can be a shorthand to delineate who deserves acceptance, respect, authority, and how much should be given to them. Kathryn Joan Fox described this phenomenon in the punk scene (1987. “Real Punks and Pretenders: The Social Organization of a Counterculture.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 16 (3): 344-370), detailing how “preppie punks” who did not adhere to the wider punk ethos in their daily lives deferred judgment to and almost revered the “hardcore punks” who were willing to follow the punk lifestyle in their entire life, regardless of the consequences. These preppie punks, who might otherwise been seen as inauthentic, fake, liars, and outsiders were often humored by the hardcore punks as this respect fed into their reputation as knowledgeable insiders worthy of admiration.

The idea of local, much like authenticity, is a more abstract extension of further ideas of inclusion and the control of space and use that is inherent when talking about in/exclusion. The reason this piece began with a discussion of skateboarding is that the relegation of where skateboarding is and isn’t accessible is a common issue for cities. Ocean Howell, now a professor of architecture and a former professional skateboarder, has often discussed how this is just the most overt instance of the common trope and ruling idea that public spaces are not actually meant for everyone. There was an abundance of controversy when areas in London began installing metal spikes to dissuade the homeless population from staying in certain areas. While these are the perhaps the most overt and callous examples of this tendency, the ethos behind their existence is not new and has been a driving factor in design considerations for a while now. As The Atlantic article posits near its end, it is possible to make more welcoming and inclusive spaces, but it requires very pointed and conscious effort among individuals.

Tying this back to my opening discussion, part of what makes this movement so effortful is how deeply and quietly the idea that not all people deserve equal use of a space has been embedded within us. Conceptions of “local” are seen as useful, valid, and natural, but instead are fairly artificial. While there exist undeniable differences in individual knowledge on a topic or area all of which might lend one more prominence in an area or better able to hold their own in a space, whether it is as a tour guide of Chicago or orator in a Socratic dialogue, preempting individuals from interacting because of their non-localness and not their ability to contribute is a small example of how othering and divisions between people are reinforced on a micro-sociological basis.

[i] Notably, rather than be put off by these perceptions and criticisms, Suciu seems to have doubled down on his predilection, filming his Civil Liberties video part exclusively at East Coast plaza.

I Just Need Something Real: Analyzing Authenticity as Business Strategy

by Richard Kaminski

One of the most prevalent cultural trends as of late is the focus on “authenticity” within the business world.  It is repeated ad nauseam that companies succeed, specifically on social media, only by being “authentic.”  Marketing geniuses and gurus discuss how brands win over consumers by authentically interacting with them and honestly portraying their brand, goals, and values. This belief is so pervasive that Fast Company placed Anna Kendrick on their “100 Most Creative People in Business 2014” list, citing her authentic personal brand (amongst other qualities) which shines through the perceived inauthenticity of greater Hollywood. This is consistently what consumers discuss wanting from the companies they support as well–or at least what writers describe consumers as wanting. Apparently, before purchasing most things, we want a real, true, honest connection with a real, true, honest company that really, truly, honestly care about them.

This seems fairly straightforward. Being authentic is just being yourself, right? But the issue is “authenticity” is a concept impossible to define beyond the vague “know it when I see it” test.  Sociologists have explored “authenticity” through a variety of lenses. Erving Goffman is often credited with indirectly creating the modern concept of authenticity although his work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1958. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.) does not give a definition of what being authentic actually means.   Instead, sociologists have inferred it through their interpretation of Goffman’s theatrical metaphors of “front stage” and “back stage” behaviors. Within Goffman’s work, he describes the tendency of people to “reserv[e] the term ‘sincere’ [i.e. ‘authentic’] for individuals who believe in the impression fostered by their own performance” (1958: 10). Authentic people are best described as people who believe that how they portray themselves is actually the person they are. Goffman’s work is interesting because it does not posit a concrete break between “sincerity” and “insincerity” (i.e. inauthenticity). Instead, these qualities are seen as amorphous. It is entirely possible for individuals to move back and forth between believing and not believing their outward presentations, occasionally moving between these markers several times within one performance. Despite the somewhat negative connotations often given to inauthenticity within the structure of subcultures or everyday interactions, Goffman mentions the fact that inauthentic beliefs and actions can be of use depending on the context in which they are found, such as the witch-doctor who might not believe in his spells, but knows that others do (1958: 13). The first chapter of Goffman’s work, entitled “Performances,” takes an in-depth look at how individuals create and act out their identities based on numerous aspects of their surroundings, including who one is performing for and where this performance is taking place.

Taking this long view of authenticity as a concept, we discover that business analysts, marketers, journalists, consultants, and a myriad of other professionals are playing into the delusion that authenticity ever actually meant anything solid and stable at all.  “Being authentic” is a constantly shifting process that is best suited to describe interactions based on a variety of factors: context, history, personal and cultural expectations and knowledge, and plenty more.  What authenticity actually is is a perception arising during an interaction that attempts to ensure all participants walk away with their pride intact and a positive impression of one another. “Being authentic,” then, is a difficult middle ground in which attempting to be authentic is almost immediately noticeable and thought of as awkward or fake, but still requires people and brands to have an awareness of who they are, what they are doing, and what they ultimately want.

I believe that the only detail that this new interest in judging authenticity and dissecting how brands can best embody it has correct is the realization that “authenticity” is a continual process.  People and brands are not deemed “authentic” once and then retain the title forever.  They must continually work, through their interactions and through an expression of shared values, to prove it to other individuals. A failure to effectively manage this process or a misalignment between stated goals and beliefs and actions can often be quickly sniffed out and brought to the fore, forcing brands to account for the discrepancy and losing goodwill and support in the process.

This instability does not mean that authenticity should be ignored by brands.  Authenticity is more important than ever. However, its fluid nature may mean that there are numerous ways to use authenticity to reach business success. Success may most readily be found when these interactions are be thought out and can be tinkered with, so long as this is not done in a deceptive manner. For example, Anna Kendrick has a list of “rules” that she tries to follow in order to effectively be herself and engage with fans, which definitely can turn into “trying too hard” is she is not careful of them. Companies will often hype up the “artisanal” or “hand-made” aspects of their brands, connecting effort, difficulty, and “traditional” methods with being authentic and thus more valuable.  Having these plans in place are important as brands that drastically change from one interaction to another are difficult to defend as acting authentically.  Similarly, the idea of authentic as unique can be used as a guide for trends to engage with, but not duplicate.  Imitating the tangential humor of Old Spice’s campaigns with Wieden+Kennedy would certainly ring out as “inauthentic” because it would be a mere copy. That’s ignoring the fact that the popularity of those Old Spice advertisements would be difficult to state beforehand with any accuracy as what goes viral is often unpredictable.

More critically, Old Spice’s advertisements and other mass-produce media of a similar style can be seen as arising an anesthetized and corporate reimagining of the absurd, tangential, and loosely related anti-humor of such modern comedians as Tim & Eric and similar “Adult Swim”-style productions. This is perhaps the crux of this issue and it helps to hammer home one of the difficulties of applying not only the concept of authenticity to the business world and capitalistic interactions, but also the critical eye that we as consumers place on these interactions and are increasingly being encouraged to do. Authenticity is deemed as the foremost driven of brand use and customer retention. As such, it is of the utmost importance that brands allow this to shine through. However, this authenticity must be of a specific type because, as consumers, we all know that a true authentic marketing campaign would ultimately boil down to companies and people simply stating “buy our stuff; give us money.” While this obsession with authenticity tells us that new possibilities are arising for brands to have meaningful interactions with their customers and consumers themselves now need their (potential) purchases to be integrated into a greater social realm, it masks the fact that this drive for the authentic is potentially artificial. If the echo chamber of “authenticity matters” is allowed to continue unabated and without critical questioning, it merely becomes a new framework for companies to sell us what they have already been for decades: buying this item will imbue you with something and make you more whole, better, than you were before.

Gotta Support the Team!: Sacred/Profane Rituals in the Sports Worlds

by Richard Kaminski

On March 8, 2013, I was standing in a bar with my father and one of his friends, drinking some beers and Jack and Cokes, eating pizza, and watching as the Chicago Blackhawks lost, horribly, to the Colorado Avalanche. With their victory, the Avalanche delivered the Blackhawks their first regulation loss in the (shortened) 2012-2013 NHL season, ending a streak of 24 games with at least one point. This streak is a franchise record and the third longest in the NHL. While ultimately, everything worked out a few months later as the Blackhawks lifted their fifth Stanley Cup in one of the most exciting one and a half minutes in sports history, this loss in March was a big deal. And as I left the bar that night, I looked down and knew one thing for certain: I was done wearing my Blackhawks jersey until the playoffs.

Superstitions exist in everyday life and across cultures, often in pithy and/or confusing forms: step on a crack, break your mother’s back; grooms can’t see their brides in their dress before the wedding ceremony; don’t put certain items on tables; avoid the number 13 (except in baked goods). Athletes, however, are known for being superstitious above and beyond most others. Having sex too close to a game can prove disastrous, unless you’re not playing well and then it might be just what you need.   Playoff beards are an institution. Uniforms and special underwear are worn every game or go unwashed. Fans aren’t immune to these superstitions either. This tendency is such a touch point that Bud Light used this as a theme for its “It’s Not Weird If It Works” advertising campaign.

These superstitions and rituals may not be complete hogwash, as some studies have connected them with a boost in confidence and increased performance. They give athletes a feeling of control, which stands out in sharp contrast to the numerous variables beyond their reckoning in the complex microcosm of a match. Similarly, set rituals may allow athletes to enter the important flow state as their muscle memory takes over their preparation, allowing them to concentrate (or not concentrate) on the game ahead. These benefits are specifically for the athletes themselves, however, and seem if not perfectly rational, then at least understandable. What allows these feelings to bleed over to fans who can exert little to no influence on the outcome of the game itself?

Returning to my opening story, an interesting facet of these superstitions is how quickly otherwise meaningless objects and clothes become good luck charms when your team wins before turning anathema and toxic when they’re present for a loss or injury. Once they become imbued with something, these items can then become more easily imbued with everything. They begin to exist in a fluid, liminal space where they can transition seamlessly and easily between useful and destructive. Remember I said that I was done wearing my sweater until the playoffs. The playoffs are different from regulation play. Once they begin, the slate is wiped clean and my jersey can potentially become a good luck charm. This paradoxical retention of opposing traits is a longstanding social trend, examined early on in Émile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and expounded upon by the works of philosophers and critics such as a Georges Bataille and the structuralists and poststructuralists. The sacred and the profane are generally seen as opposites, but these works examined how these qualities are very often applied to or are seen as inherent within one item. Sacred or profane would then take prominence as needed by that item’s specific context, position, and role at a specific time. The sacred and profane are very robust qualities and help prescribe and delineate individual actions and interactions between people, things, and social spaces. There are times where certain people are needed to do certain things and appealing to these qualities and associated rituals are often effective means to an end. While the profane for Durkheim was simply that which is not sacred, i.e. the mundane, other theorists have treated the profane to mean anti-sacred and questioned even this mild contrast, examining the ways in which the sacred and profane or non-sacred may be one in the same as both of these qualities are culturally dependent and result in the supernatural transformation of an object.

For Durkheim, the recourse to ritual and the creation of the sacred and profane allowed for the strengthening of social ties and more efficient social structures. When fans take part in these superstitions, they are helping to create these social ties and feel connected to their favorite team. These rituals work exactly as they always have. Fans can imagine themselves as playing a role, no matter how small, in their team’s outcome and feel either confident in their choice to take part or guilty because their wrong decision let the team down. Furthermore, one of Durkheim’s conclusions was that as societies begin to change their norms and foci, new items become imbued with the totemic qualities of the sacred/profane. He discusses the rise of the individual as a social ideal as a reassignment of the sacred. Sacred rituals remain performative and object-based, but that object becomes more abstract and less bounded by physical items. The sports charm, however, is a unique distillation of this as it can exist not only on the boundary of sacred/profane, but also reaches the extreme edge of the individualistic and flirts between abstract and totemic. My fear of jinxing the Blackhawks became manifest in an actual object (the jersey) while being specific (I couldn’t wear a jersey during a game, but it might help if someone else wore one). The sacred/profane dichotomy then is perpetuated, perhaps for the same exact reasons that it originated, but it is evolving to imbed itself even more so in people’s everyday lives. Rather than existing in a very specific and prescribed moments, it is perhaps moving to become more subtle and permeate further into our lives and interactions.

Some Social Structures Behind How Police Officers Get Away With Brutality

by Richard Kaminski

VICE News has an ongoing blog called “Officer Involvedthat describes recent police actions and updates in America.  Along with this, they feature numerous articles critiquing and questioning policing trends.  Contributor Natasha Lennard has written several great and thought-provoking articles discussing the massive problem of police brutality and violence committed within the U.S., specifically against black males.  She has correctly understood these actions to be nestled tightly within socio-cultural systems and institutions.  This article was written as an extension of her work, bringing a sociological lens to these specific practices and strategies in hopes of shedding more light on the natures of these offenses and the structures that allow, if not encourage, them to continue.

The sociologist John Liederbach studied criminal practices within the medical field and realized that doctors create a “protective cloak” around themselves to shield their actions from outside scrutiny (“Opportunity and Crime in the Medical Professions” in Constructions of Deviance [5th Edition]. 2006. Thomson/Wadsworth).  In order to do this, they rely on basic assumptions and attitudes about their actions and profession.  Doctors are generally trusted and have some level of prestige in their community at large.  Along with this, they also have very specialized knowledge; a layperson could not claim, with an appreciable amount of authority, whether or not a doctor acted correctly when treating a patient and if said doctor is responsible for a patient’s injuries or death.  Because of this, only other knowledgeable individuals (i.e. doctors) are able to accurately judge an offender’s actions.  This seems to make sense upon first glance.  It allows the most qualified individuals to police themselves and assumes that this knowledge, combined with having a large stake in maintaining their reputation as trustworthy and legitimate, will ensure transgressions are punished appropriately and rules are put in place to avoid these errors in the future.  This is the overarching logic of all internal review boards and bodies.  As such, this phenomenon can be found in other fields, including the Catholic priesthood, the military, and police departments.

Unfortunately, this practice does not provide the oversight necessary to ensure that not abuse or harm is allowed to take place.  Instead, it creates a system where the individuals responsible for punishing offenses are the least inclined to do so.  Doctors or police officers are generally unwilling to punish their compatriots.  Most obviously, any internal disciplinary actions taken against an offender are seen as high treason, dissolving trust between group members.  Often, individuals who encourage the disciplinary actions or speak out against abuses or misconduct will be ostracized, alienated, and punished.  Furthermore, most of these boards do not want to run the risk of harming the public perceptions of their field and as such, will not punish offenders except in extreme or very public cases.  And even then, most punishments will be a slap on the wrist, symbolic gestures more than anything else, and meant to give an appearance of concern or action.  By taking advantage of their status and privileges, these groups are effective at skirting outside interference while providing themselves with a veneer of objectivity.

However, the spread of camera phones, social media, and the swelling voices of protesters has the potential to make more of these cases public and help us work against this trend.  Unfortunately, as Natasha Lennard’s pieces have shown, this does not mean that all cases will break through this protective cloak and add much needed outside oversight and unbiased judgments.  Look at the case of Eric Garner.  Despite video evidence of his death, a grand jury did not indict the officer.

That this is not a new phenomenon should not come as a surprise.  Charles Goodwin wrote a piece analyzing the Rodney King trials, a horrific incident that in many ways mirrors some of the incidents we are privy to today (especially Eric Garner’s), and the strategies that eventually let to the first acquittal of three of the four recorded police officers (“Professional Vision” in American Anthropologist Vol. 96 No. 3 Sept. 1994).  What Goodwin found was that there existed two distinct interpretations of the Rodney King tape: one was the non-police perspective in which four armed officers were savagely attacking an unarmed man; the other was the logical conclusion of police training that (formally and informally) taught officers to perceive any and all movements like Rodney King’s as potential attacks and therefore dangerous, regardless of their actual intent.  This second framework is useful and understandable in some situations.  If a police officer is tracking a murderer or is in an armed stand-off, the ability to quickly perceive a potential threat and instinctively react to neutralize this threat may save his life.  However, these same instincts also clearly kick in when they are unnecessary, escalating a situation into an unnecessarily violent, sometimes fatal, encounter.

What happened in the Rodney King trial was that these police officers were able to explain the thought processes behind their actions to the jury in such a way that not only did the jurors understand their actions, they agreed that they were the only acceptable choices that could be made right then.  A similar reframing took place Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s insistence that he was not using a chokehold on Eric Garner.  This is frightening.  It shows just how easily people can be taught to see normal bodily functions and reactions as threats that need to be squashed as quickly and effectively as possible.  It also illustrates that for most of these cases, we might not be able to doubt a police chief or an agency representative that says in a press conference that they see no unnecessary force in a video that looks like clear abuse and brutality to non-police officers.  These internal investigators are being genuine because they have learned how to interpret those types of actions.  They know what their training would have caused them to do and they view that interpretation and training as valid.  So of course they will be able to understand the end-result, even if it means justifying a death.

Obviously, this does not excuse their actions.  No amount of logic can bring a person back to life and if training is done in such a manner as to encourage escalation to the point of death or severe injury, then it is quite obvious that the training needs to change—for the safety and well-being of all individuals involved.

Understanding police violence with these concepts in mind, we can better understand how law enforcement agencies protect themselves from outside scrutiny by taking advantage of their social power and status, as well as specialized knowledge.  If we want outside oversight to become more widespread, advocates will need to start working at criticizing and tearing down the assumptions that protect and excuse these actions.  Similarly, if the public begins to see how police officers view the world and the actions of potential arrestees and suspects, then lawyers and the legal system in general can become more robust, adapting to this rhetoric and defensive explanations.  A more critical eye can be trained on the evidence in these cases, hopefully finding justice and, in moments of unnecessary brutality and escalation, showing the entire law enforcement community that that rhetoric and viewpoint is not always necessary or acceptable and it cannot be used to blind citizens any longer.  These understandings show that in order to effectively work against violent police actions, deeply ingrained social structures and practices will need to be reevaluated and scrutinized and that we still have a lot of work ahead of us.