Raybeck Discusses Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart at Think Tank

Professor of Anthropology Doug Raybeck spoke at a Think Tank brown bag lunch on April 9 about the cultural constructions and perceptions of newsmakers Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart. The talk was titled "The Paedomorph and the Priestess: Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart as Cultural Icons." He is currently working on a paper on the subject, which he will deliver later this year at the National Anthropology Conference.

Raybeck began by talking about the human love for finding patterns in our lives, and how patterns help humans to understand and control the world around them. Humans have a talent for recognizing patterns in nature, but they also tend to supply patterns to situations even when they're not there. Information processing begins with recognition of contrast and binary opposition. Humans see opposites, and then add various ideas on to them to create patterns in their minds, bringing information from previous patterns to bear on new experiences.

After humans get a pattern set in their minds, it is difficult for them to change it. Cultures use binary opposition to create concepts of clarity and purity. Any thing that challenges these patterns, by stepping outside of their preordained order, is threatening, charged, and fascinating to our culture. Raybeck said his current work is interested in what American culture and media make of Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart, stressing the fact that their personas and significance are made by the culture.

Michael Jackson, says Raybeck, is a prime example of the in-between form of life known as a paedomorph, something that retains the attributes of the juvenile form even in its adult state. Jackson also straddles the lines of black/white and male/female. He violates all these cultural categories, and for these reasons he is consistently fascinating to America.

Martha Stewart's public persona epitomizes the cultural concept of purity and having everything "in place." In some ways, said Raybeck, she has been elevated to an almost priestess-like status in the domestic realm. People revered her perfection, while at the same time finding it somewhat unsettling, unnatural and threatening. However, he said, if you're going to stand for order and purity, you have to stay pure -- "If you're going to be a Vestal Virgin, you better not fool around!" Raybeck believes that her fall due to insider trading allegations was greeted with such glee and fascination because it so contradicted the cultural status she had gained for herself.

Think Tank is an informal lunch time discussion group, sponsored by the Levitt Center, where Hamilton students, faculty and staff discuss issues of current social and public importance.

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