An experiment by Martin Holbraad, Lise Røjskjær Pedersen, and Nina Holm Vohnsen
For the members of our group the most pressing question during Comedy of Things has been: Does form in itself have the capacity to generate quality? This, off course, on the one hand is the question we have implicitly been asked to explore by way of the various experiments set up by our organizers; on the other hand it also has been the question which tore our group apart on the second day of the workshop and the question which has let several of the workshops participants to feel reluctant to share the workshops results with the outside world and even feel ashamed at times. Is what we are doing here actually worthwhile, or are we enacting yet another instantiation of a privileged group of people playing parlor games?
With this question at the forefront of our minds, on the third day of the workshop (following the instructions of 2xMorten) we begin to look for affinities between our various anecdotes, jokes, and myths. Many of these, it turns out, explore and play with the same basic question (items 4, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14). We therefore quickly decided to make that into our explicit research question and adopt the following empirically grounded working title:
The problem of creativity: Does the application of a specific FORM produce valuable CONTENT?
For this purpose we divided our myths and anecdotes into two sets: One set in which the textual quality primarily reside in its particular FORM (items 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 15); another set in which the quality of the text is in its CONTENT (items 4, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13 14, 16, 17, 18). For example, in the anecdotes from Kerteminde (item 2), what makes them recognizable as such are their particular framing of everyday incidents as events. Their form ‘and then there was the one about’ and usage of distinctively local characters elevates the mundane into something special. The anecdotal content is less relevant than the anecdotal form’s capacity to detrivializing the trivial. In the myth and anecdote from the Tai Natural Forest (items 17, 18) what ‘make’ these stories are their particular content. Now the experiment which mimics the experiment of the conference becomes: Does the extracted FORM from the Kerteminde anecdotes generate something interesting, useful or otherwise of value when applied to the content of other anecdotes or myths such as the one from the Tai Natural Forest?
So we set out to extract from our myths and anecdotes in the FORM pile the specific techniques they employ and ended up with the following techniques: Purification (item 1), elevation of the everyday into event (item 2), absurdity (item 3, 5), dramatization, (item 4), moralize (item 4), building up tension (item 9), swelling (item 10), divine intervention (15). Two of these techniques stood out as meta-techniques which would serve to structure our experiment (absurdity and divine intervention) while six were concrete instructions for how we would work on the items classified as content (purify, elevate into event, dramatize, moralize, swell, build up tension).
In item 3, an absurd account of a letter that gets lost with serious implications, the relentless progression of time is what pushes everything forward with no resolution or climax in sight. Identically, for us the ticking of the clock and progression of days have concrete implications for the outcome. As we write this, there is half an hour until deadline and everything we want to say must be said before then with the quite possible implication that this will not be meaningful. In item 15,an Ifa myth about the origins of spirit possession, we receive instructions for the end towards which our instructions will work on the content: 1) POSSESSION of CONTENT by FORM; 2) PERSUATION of CONTENT by FORM, and 3) FORM reveals TRUTH in CONTENT.
So these become in effect our empirically derived guiding principles for exploring our research question: Our two main textual authors chose one meta-myth each which indicates towards what end the instructive actions must be executed driven forward by the relentless ticking of the clock…
Meta-myth 3 – FORM reveals TRUTH in CONTENT
Instructions: Elevate the everyday into event // Dramatize // Extract moral
Yes. And then there was the one about AIDS. Now this was during the civil war of 2002 so you have to remember even the good guys resorted to bad ways. Hungry and afraid for the lives of their loved ones people from the village of A had fled into the Tai National Forest and taken up poaching. The villages of A were farmers by trade and didn’t actually know much about the forest or its inhabitants. They might have seen a chimpanzee in action for a few minutes before pulling the trigger during their sparse and shameful previous flirtations with poaching. Great was their surprise then, when one day during a hunting expedition with took them to unfamiliar parts of the forest, they stumbled upon a large group of mangabey monkies which seemed to be indifferent to their inexpert and noisy stumbling upon them. So while the monkies peacefully carried on what appeared to be the cracking of nuts with big stones, the lucky farmers were able to take them all out with their semi-automatic rifles and subsequently to make a small fortune on the bush meat market. And so this was how a new AIDS strain jumped the specimen barrier and spread into the villages surrounding Tai National Forest.
And then there was the one about the naked woman. A friend told me this. He was walking down one of these dirty Havana streets, you the ones where people are happy to piss up the walls and let their dogs shit on whatever pavement remains. You know? Where holes in the dirt road quickly are turned into garbage dumps. Yeah, one of those roads. Now, so my friend was walking this street and he sees this woman running while she is laughing hysterically. As she gets closer and you see how she’s started to unbutton her dress. Somehow kids just have a way of appearing out of the blue when something like this happen, so you have all these kids staring while she’s getting to the point where her tits are everywhere. So before you know it she’s down to her knickers and you’ve got kids howling at her. You know, these things just happen more and more these days.
And then there was the one about the Permanent Secretary who thought he made evidence-based policy.
And then there was the one about the Professor who was asked to come up with something fresh and new for the WTO.
And then there was the one about the Minstrel Show and Bones Nicholson. Now Bones wore his nickname with all the pride of an American high school footballer. He had fallen in love with a local girl but somehow could not make it past her kid brother whom the parents had attached to her as a pimple faced chaperone of sorts. Now in addition to being a footballer, Bones was equipped with a screwed mind and as the annual minstrel show was coming up he conceived of a plan which would clear his path. In those days being asked to perform in the show as a minstrel was an honor; leading citizens would put on black faces and sing and dance to traditional music derived from Negro spirituals. Being the captain of the football team Bones had some leverage with the town elite, and while this influence was too modest to get the kid brother an actual key role, Bones did manage to secure him the lesser role as an extra. And so while the black faced kid brother was stuck in a magician’s box Bones was finally able to make his move.
And then there was the one about the Professor who had been asked to come up with something fresh and new for the WTO. The critical moment came when in February 2013 a large meeting took place in Basel between the team of artists, the curators, the diplomats, and the Professor. In the exhilarated moment of completion and revelation one diplomat asked the artists to explain how it would all work. Fair question, the Professor thought as he passed glasses of red wine around. From there it all went downhill. Afterwards the only thing he really could recall was a diplomat’s quotation of a Spanish saying: “I am embarrassed for you not being embarrassed.”
And then there was the one about the three Professors, let’s call them A, B, and C.
And so on.
A flash of insight. And as it so often is, this comes to me in the shower. What we have been saying to each other again and again is the point that has been waiting to be understood: This particular form flattens the hierarchy between the different stories. But what is more, and this is the real insight, it is not so much a narrative technique which detrivializes the trivial (and as such relatively innocent) as it is a social technique that flattens hierarchical relations between people. It is a real true technique which works! This is WHY they tell these stories, or rather; it is the implication of telling these stories. I thought that the application of the form on the content would be the point of it all. But it turned out, as I should perhaps have expected, that the thing I learned something about was the form itself. The function of the form as a social levelling mechanism. JANTELOVEN, as Martin said, but a much more refined version of it. And so other pieces of knowledge clicks into place and I realize I have on my hand a machine for producing not only analysis but also a form which it in itself an analysis.
Meta-myth 1 – POSSESSION of CONTENT by FORM
Instructions: Build up tension // Purify // Swell
Once upon a time. Very cruel. Farum. He wanted to bury the town and the lake with soil.
Therefore he took a huge sack.
He started to collect soil and big stones
And he put it all into the sack
A hole. Arresø. Soil running out. Covered.
Yes he was furious. Last bit of soil out of the sack. We now call Vild-bjerg, Strø bjerge, Strø. You can go there and look for yourselves.
Our set of ethnographic narratives consists of seven items. They have been selected from a larger set of narratives brought to our desk on a more or less arbitrary basis, and with differing degrees of enthusiasm, by the five participants in our group. The larger set included narratives of four different types, namely: two so-called myths – one chosen from the participant’s primary field site and one from his or her place of origin (participants were free to interpret this as they wished); and two jokes or humorous narratives – again, one from the participant’s field site and one from their place of origin.
The criterion for selecting the seven items was thematic. Of the 20 items on our desk, they all seemed in different ways to be about the question of creativity, and particularly the relationship between structures that discipline procedure and the kinds of outcome these procedures may produce. At the heart of this theme, furthermore, lies the binary opposition between the genius of original creation and the dreadful possibility that its outcome may be foolish, pretentious, or sheer rubbish. So, taken alone or seen in the light of each other, the seven items produce permutations of the opposition between genius and bullshit. Since this is also the bottom-line theme of the experimental workshop in which this analysis is being conducted, we felt that the resonance between the content of these items and the concerns of the workshop for which they have been produced could provide a good motivation for our selection. In that loose sense the process selected these items for itself.
However, the resonance between content and process is magnified also in a further, perhaps more indirect way. Dysfunctional in an array
scepticism about the process in which we have agreed to take part, or submitted ourselves (or exposed to, even subjected to) has been the leitmotif of our conversations, which, frankly have been pleasant only to varying degrees. Our worry about whether the process in which we are engaging ought to be taken seriously at all has at different times taken us over and insinuated itself into the structure of our relationships within the group, with variously corrosive effects. To the extent that this has been an effect of the structure of the process to which we have submitted ourselves, frustration has at time been targeted in an array of directions. Social disposition and analytical modality at once, our anger may lend a revenge-like quality to our fulfilment of the task at hand. So, an angry resonance………………………distortion.
Seven items of creativity
To provide an overview of – as well as an initial handle on – the materials that form our narrative set, we list the seven items below individually. A labelling-title and epigrammatic indication of the thematic core of each item is provided, followed by information as to its provenance. This information includes the name of the investigator who brought the narrative to the desk, the type of task for which it was brought (i.e. myth/joke, place of origin/primary site of research), and the number assigned to the item in our original cataloguing of the materials. A scanned image of our working archival entries for each item (i.e. the items’ individual processing cards) is adduced also. Finally, the relevance of each item to the overall theme of creativity (genius or soft shite) is indicated briefly.
These working estimations of the degrees of relevance of each item to the overall theme to which it speaks also provide the motivation for the order in which the items are listed. In what at this stage can only be a rough and to an extent arbitrary manner, we have placed the items on a continuum of decreasing relevance, i.e. starting with items that go to the heart of the matter in hand, and ending with items that can be said to relate to it only tenuously, if at all. Indeed, to emphasise the point, we have included an eighth item at the end of the itemising list, which we have placed in brackets to convey its role as a place holder for what might stand as the kind of limit towards which our continuum of increasing irrelevance might tend. It has NOTHING to do with our exercise.
For the full, original versions of the items as they were brought to the desk, please refer to XXXX.
Labelling-title: The Creativity Myth
Thematic core: A popular misconception is that creativity is fun and easy. Creativity is hard work. Good ideas require immersion. Great ideas require a period of maturing.
Investigator: Lise Røjskjær Pedersen
Task-type: Myth from primary research site
Catalogue no.: 11
Relevance value: A+ There seems to be a complete correspondence between the content of Røjskjær Pedersen’s ethnographic research with anthropologically-trained consultants and the kinds of preoccupations explored in this workshop. Røjskjær Pedersen’s informants express a stance vis a vis creativity that responds directly to the challenges posed by the form of the event in which we, in working them over, are engaged.
Thematic core: Anthropology/art installation. Curatorial team. ‘Just imagine’ talk. Illness and skype, a bottle is passed around the green-room. ‘I am embarrassed for you not being embarrassed. Plan-B, C. Egos protected.
Investigator: Ona ire, ona tutu – dice Orula…
Task-type: Amusing anecdote from primary research site
Catalogue no.: 12
Relevance value: A. If the previous item thematised the concerns of our event, this one illustrates one of its possible outcomes. It raises the question, certainly, of how far previous forms of experimentation with anthropological creativity can have a bearing on the ones precipitated here.
Labelling-title: Evidens/ce-based policy
Thematic core: What some people calls evidence based on data and preferably from controlled trials – with control groups. The more “I have based policy’. And thereby the better. And therefore wants something, then we to do, then what can we recommend. […] This is evidence based.
Investigator: Nina Holm Vohnsen
Task-type: Myth from primary research site
Catalogue no.: 7
Relevance value: B. This presents the aesthetic template from which some of the formal constrains within which we operate are based. It also provides the moulds for the kind of atrocious ruses that people play on each other in order to stay on board, moving forward.
Labelling-title: The Farum model
Thematic core: Fascism: You have two cows. Communism: You have two cows. Totalitarianism: You have two cows. Capitalism/liberalism: Retire and live happily from the return. The Farum model: You have two cows. You sell 3 of them you get all 4 cows back for 5 cows of the 6 cows a secret company who sell all 7 cows back to owns 8 cows with the option.
Investigator: Lise Røjskjær Pedersen
Task-type: Amusing anecdote from place of origin. …at tæt forbi Strø strækker sig en lang ås?
Strø Bjerge kaldes den. Den blev dannet under istiden af smeltevand. Åsen rager omkring 20 meter op i
landskabet, som i øvrigt er ret fladt.
Ifølge den folkelige overlevering er Strø Bjerge dannet på en helt anden måde. Der var nemlig engang en
trold, der blev vred på Farum by. Han besluttede derfor at begrave byen med jord. Jorden hentede han
der, hvor Arresø nu er. Han kom den i en sæk og begav sig af sted mod Farum. Da han var kommet et
stykke vej, gik der hul på sækken, men først, da han var på vej forbi Strø opdagede han at jorden
Han stak en finger i hullet, men det hjalp kun et øjeblik, så gik der igen hul i sækken. (Ud for Strø er der
et hul i åsen.) Da trolden var kommet lidt længere, opdagede han at sækken var næsten tom. I raseri
kastede han nu resten af sækkens indhold i retning mod Farum. Det kom imidlertid ikke længere end lidt
forbi Gørløse til det nuværende Vildbjerg. På den måde blev både Arresø, Strø Bjerg og Vildbjerg dannet.
Og Farum blev skånet for denne gang.
…at Skævinge kommune omfatter landsbyerne Gørløse, Strø, Skævinge, Sigerslevøster, Strølille, Lille
Lyngby, Store Lyngby og Meløse.
Endelserne -løse, -inge og -slev viser, at der har været beboet her siden oldtiden, hvilket også fund fra
de mange arkæologiske udgravninger har kunnet bevise. Mere herom ved en senere lejlighed.
Catalogue no.: 14
Labelling-title: Woman taking clothes off
Thematic core: A tragicomedy of Cuban clothes (on getting out of holes). Once, in the early 2000s, I was walking the streets of Havana under the afternoon sun, going from my flat to my best friend’s home. On a main road on my way there I noticed a middle-aged woman with a strange expression on her face, laughing loudly to herself. She was walking on the other side of the road from me, and, as she laughed in a hysterical or maybe a bit disturbed way, she started unbuttoning her dress. Children in a nearby schoolyard started howling at her, as children in Cuba do when something that to them seems outrageous happens within their view (e.g. a transvestite walking by will typically provoke this kind of collective bullying– seems to me groups of children are among the most conservative forces in Cuban society, and this may be universal). Anyway, the woman seemed oblivious to their teasing, but, for reasons that appeared to be her own, started speeding up, as she undid her dress to such an extent that soon her breasts were exposed and the whole thing was going south fast. Before we knew it the woman was down to her pants (‘bloomers’, as they say in Cuba), laughing uncontrollably and running up the length of the road, until she was lost from our sight.
Investigator: Martin Holbraad
Task-type: Amusing anecdote from primary research site
Catalogue no.: 13
Labelling-title: American professors
Thematic core: University of Z, famous professors A, B, and C rarely missed a chance to be at each other’s throats. “Fuck you, A!” and “Fuck you, B!” “B was just great! ‘If A wants to say “Fuck you!” to me, then that’s none of your business.’ When this phenomenon was first introduced things developed normally, but after a while everything began to change. Each person began to think of themselves as superior to the rest, and warfare began, using both weapons and secret knowledge (viz. sorcery). The warfare began to take its toll on the earth’s inhabitants, since each thought of themselves as a god in accordance with the knowledge they had acquired. One day Olofin sent Elegguá to inspect the earth and inform him on how things were. What Elegguá saw made him very angry. He asked one man, “What has caused this war on earth?” to which the man responded, “I am a child of Osain (the fearsome deity of herbs and sorcery), and my father has made me one of his most privileged children, since Osain comes into my head, granting me the knowledge I need, so I am the wisest of all.” Elegguá remonstrated with the man about his conceit, telling him that Olofin will not tolerate it and that the wars need to stop. Philosopher Pierre Bayle had conceived of the “Republic of Letters” as a war of all against all.
Task-type: Amusing anecdote from primary research site
Catalogue no.: 4
Relevance value: A-. Professor A, A-, for affirmative action, irradiation, -ción. At the local cinema, leading citizens put on black face and strummed, danced, and sang traditional music, much derived from Negro spirituals, and race-based (but not overtly racist) comedy. It was an honor to be asked to perform as a minstrel. Minstrel shows were common in small town America at least through the 1950s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3lIVSKDveU as part of community life. …………….O O O O………………………vamos a ir al grano. Afeminados, brete, chisme… ☻Cuidado!
(A pick-up truck was carrying a load of holes.
When it hit a bump on the road one of the holes fell out.
The driver got out of the truck to pick the hole up, and fell in it.)
 Holbraad, Martin. 2008: Definitive evidence, from Cuban gods. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Special Issue Objects of Evidence, M. Engelke (ed.)), S93-S109//