Friday, May 30, 2003

Catching up on reading

I've been on vacation this week and catching up on my reading. In doing this, I've had the pleasure of encountering some of the worst writing I've seen in some time.

In the academic writing category, this is from "To Be Indian, to Be Bolivian: "Ethnic" and "National" Discourses of Identity" by Thomas Abercrombie, in _Nation-States and Indians in Latin America_, edited by Greg Urban and Joel Sherzer, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991, p. 105:

"Indians" came, at least by the mid-seventeenth century, to regard themselves as civilized sons of (a solarized) Christ; their pre-Columbian ancestors as the defeated satanic race of a prehuman age; and the underworld place-deities that they continued to ritually celebrate as the sources of necessary chthonic potencies that, domesticated by Christian powers, could still sustain them (Abercrombie 1986). These anti- or pre-Christian underworld beings and powers are portrayed (by today's "Indians") in the likeness of the Spaniards' image of Indians as Others (un-Christian and without bueno policía regardless of Spanish efforts, as many colonial Spanish and contemporary urban accounts paint them). The asymmetrical power of the colonial gaze ensured the alienation of the Indian self (pushing it into the nearby and well-remembered past), but guaranteed its retention, in the shape of the transformed Indians' Other's Other.

Ok, I want to know the difference between "Indians" and Indians. One would imagine that Indians are "real" Indians while "Indians" are pseudo- or ex- Indians or Indians in name only, basically not-exactly-Indians. But that still doesn't help in understanding why he'd drop the quotation marks in some places. On the other hand, Tom's got an apparent fascination with punctuation in general -- I don't see his parenthetical phrases as particularly parenthetical -- so maybe it's got more to do with that.

Beyond that, I have to ask: did you get lost in the Others?

And in the category of academic trying to write for a popular audience, from _Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping_, by Paco Underhilll, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 12:

[added later: let me correct myself. Paco isn't an academic. So he has even fewer excuses for producing the following "paragraph" (a paragraph only by 2 criteria: it goes on for several lines, and it's set apart by indentation)]

Well, if, say, anthropology had devoted a branch to the study of modern shoppers in situ, a fancy Latin way of saying shoppers out shopping, interacting with retail environments (not only stores, but also banks and restaurants), including but not limited to every rack, shelf, counter and table display of merchandise, every sign, banner, brochure, directional aid and computerized interactive informational fixture, the entrances and exits, the windows and walls, the elevators and escalators and stairs and ramps, the cashier lines and teller lines and counter lines and restroom lines, and every inch of every aisle -- in short, every nook and cranny from the farthest reaches of the parking lot to the deepest penetration of the store itself -- that would be the start of the science of shopping. And if anthropology has already been studying all of that ... and not simply studying the store, but what, exactly human beings do in it, where they go and don't go, and by what path they go there; what they see and fail to see, or read and decline to read; and how they deal with the objects they come upon, how they shop, you might say -- the precise anatomical mechanics and behavioral psychology of how they pull a sweater from a rack to examine it, or read a box of heartburn pills or a fast-food restaurant menu, or deploy a shopping basket, or react to the sight of a line at the ATMs ... again, as I say, if anthropology had been paying attention, and not just paying attention but then collating, digesting, tabulating and cross-referencing every little bit of data, from the extremely broad (How many people enter this store on a typical Saturday morning broken down by age, sex and size of shopper group?) to the extremely narrow (Do more male supermarket shoppers under thirty-five who read the nutritional information on the side panel of a cereal box actually buy the cereal compared to those who just look at the picture on the front?), well, then we wouldn't have had to try to invent the science of shopping.

I want to know, who was Paco's editor at Simon Schuster and where was he/she when ol' Paco submitted his manuscript. It occurs to me that, after reading the above paragraph, the poor editor resigned Paco to hopeless status and just sent the MSS through, being fearful of reading further.

Actually, I myself haven't gotten much farther than that, but I'm going to keep going.

Tom Abercrombie's article actually improved some following his exercise in jargon quoted above. Maybe Paco's book will improve as well.

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