Monday, July 16, 2007

Thinking Blogger Award

So I too have been awarded the "Thinking Blogger Award" - by the excellent Esotika Erotica Psychotica blog.

I must admit I initially felt somewhat ambivalent about the award. Kindly put, the award is an internet meme ("a unit of cultural information that propagates from one mind to another as a theoretical unit of cultural evolution and diffusion") - but to put it less politely, it is a modernday equivalent of the chain letter.

The rules are as follows:

1. If, and only if, one gets tagged, one is obliged to write a post with links to five blogs that make one think,
2. One must link to the original post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. And one may display the 'Thinking Blogger Award'.

I'm not keen on chain letters. Some play on the avarice of their recipients, leading them to financial ruin through get-rich-quick pyramid schemes. Other exploit superstition, transforming life into a kind of supernatural promise or - even worse - menace for their recipients. Thus, chain letters can hold terrors that are all too real for those that receive them.

However, chain letters are highly interesting when 'read' in the light of ethnographic theory.

A chain letter is a letter which explicitly directs the recipient to make and distribute copies of itself. The letter is distributed along the lines of the social network of the recipients. Human relations are the lifeline of chain letters. Theoretically, if the xth generation recipients of a chain letter would be hermits, living in isolation without a social network, their only link to society being the one that gave them the letter, the chain letter would 'die'. Thus, chain letters underline the social nature of human life, forming an imagined community of chain letter recipients - a 'chain letter community'.

Chain letters are gifts. As Marcel Mauss demonstrated at the dawn of cultural anthropology, gift-giving is governed by very specific obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to accept the gift, and the obligation to reciprocate. All three obligations can be discerned in the chain letter. The chain letter explicitly directs to give copies of the letter to new recipients. These new recipients cannot refuse to accept the letter without putting a strain on their relationship with the giver - by refusing to accept the latter they would expose the giver to financial or supernatural peril. Thus, there is an obligation to receive. Finally, there is an obligation to reciprocate. And here the system becomes really interesting: reciprocity is not achieved directly - by giving something back to the giver - but indirectly and in two different ways:
1) the 'favor' is returned by copying the letter and passing it on to new recipients;
2) the system itself will eventually reciprocate, showering money or supernatural blessings on the giver.

In pyramid scheme chain letters, it is the network that is supposed to reciprocate. The reciprocation is deferred for a number of generations of the letter, until such a moment when those who reciprocate are unknown to the giver. In a sense, the network becomes an autonomous actor.

In supernatural chain letters, which promise supernatural, magical or divine threats or blessings, the impersonal anonymous supernatural force which animates the system (in some cases, personified as saints, gods and spirits) reciprocates. Structurally, the supernatural force which reciprocates the giver of the chain letter, fulfills the very same function as the members of the network in pyramid scheme chain letters. Therefore, the religious representations of these supernatural powers can be said to be collective representations of the collective realities of the chain latter community. The blessings and curses are social things, products of collective thought. Therefore, it is not suprising that almost all supernatural chain letters since 1910 have either (1) declared they are to go "all over" or around the world, or (2) claimed a certain number of completed circumnavigations. The bigger the collectivity, the more powerful it is and the more forceful are their collective representations and the greater are it's blessings or curses.
And how do these products of collective thought themselves influence the collectivity, i.e. society?

The so-called "repetition taboo", which means that people should not distribute a chain letter to anyone whom they know has already received it, is essential to understanding how chain letters affect society. As we have seen, all chain letter systems are essentially pyramid schemes. These schemes are based on a non-sustainable business model in which there is no end benefit; the rewards simply travels up the chain, and only the originator (or at best a very few) wins out. The "repetition taboo" ultimately blocks the path of the ones at the bottom of the pyramid: those who subscribed to the plan, but were not able to recruit any followers themselves. Though they can never receive the benefits of the chain letter, they must pay either financially or - in the case of supernatural chain letters which contain curses for those who do not pass the latter on - bear the wrath of gods or spirits. Chain letters cheat. The chain letter is a gift given in bad faith.

And who is most likely to be on the bottom of the pyramid? At the bottom are those people who have a low count of the number of ties to other actors in the network, those who live in relative isolation, those who are not part of socially influential cliques; in other words, the downtrodden of society. Where Marcel Mauss described the system of the gift as a viable model for a post-capitalist society, one which would avoid the moral wrongs of a stricty utilitarian system, the chain letter as a political economy can only be unjust. Receiving a chain letter leaves a foul taste in the mouth.

Nonetheless, I have accepted the reward, I've put the award on display and will play by the rules. Why?
- That this meme is meritocratic in nature - it is an award, after all - makes it different from chain letters: there is no merit in receiving a chain letter. While both awards and chain letters are animated by the hope for and pursuit of the favors of destiny, I feel the award is uncorrupted by the cheating nature of chain letters. ;
- I feel that - other than with normal chain letters - the Esotika Erotica Psychotica blog gave the award in good faith. I have no bad taste in my mouth;
- I'm honored to be in the company of some of the blogs that have received the award before;
- I see it as a nice opportunity to shower compliments on blogs that I admire.

I'm tagging:
1. Giallo Fever, a blog about the giallo film and director Dario Argento in particular.
2. Poetix, in ur v01d, v10lating ur ax10ms.
3. Savage Minds, notes and queries about anthropology.
4. An Idiot's Guide To Dreaming.
5. The Impostume, Man is born free, yet is everywhere in chainstores.

Post scripta

Here is a link to a fascinating article on chain letters.

For supernatural chain letters, the energy expended in passing the letter on can be interpreted as a sacrifice to the supernatural forces of the chain letter.

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