Saturday, July 25, 2015

:: anthropology of the modern bar ::

For the second talk on Wednesday, I went to the Tales version of TED talks; there, author Jeffrey Kluger's brief talk was so captivating that I decided to change my plans for the third talk that day and go hear the full length talk on the "Anthropology of the Modern Bar" that he was giving along side Diane Smith-Warner and Tristan Stephenson.

The bar serves as a meeting place, for "drinking is a social, rather than an anti-social act" (Mitchell & Armstrong) and "drinking is a social activity in the company of others; it is considered inappropriate and suspicious if one drinks alone" (Zhang, Man, Lee). Moreover, society needs a place for this to happen as "drinking does not, in any society, take place 'just anywhere,' and most cultures have specific, designated environments for communal drinking" (SIRC). In Ray Oldenburg's The Great Good Place, it defines the third space in terms of community, where the first space is domestic (home), the second is gainful or productive (work), and the third is social. This third space is a neutral ground where one can come and go; it needs to have accessibility, regulars, and a freedom for playfulness. The pub is not "home," but expresses a sense of homeliness, warmth, and feeling of "my local," and it allows one to recharge oneself.

The bartender can be viewed as one part medicine man and one part law giver. While bartenders serve customers, there is indeed something subordinate about the role, but just as the mayor of a town serves the citizens, we have no question as to who is in authority. We are more likely to surrender authority and autonomy to a person in power when they have a certain skill like a doctor and when they are dressed differently like a judge. Bartending is certainly a skill and often times bartenders dress in a different and identifiable way. The bartender has an ad hoc legal authority to serve a guest or not, call the police, eject guests, etc. One of the particular skills of a bartender is to produce something to put into one's body to alter one's state of consciousness, and it is an intimate skill that requires trust to ingest. At times, medicine men encouraged drunken binges to express emotions and society forgave it if it was through this authority. Similarly, a good bartender will know the difference between an animated discussion and something that can spin out of control. To this topic, Kluger referenced Al Sotack's article in Vice's Munchies on when as a bartender to be inhospitable to a guest; even though bartenders are in the hospitality industry, they are responsible to be inhospitable to rule breakers.

The talk moved on to how the bar can often be sexually charged and part of the mating ritual. Bars promote this with dim lighting, proximity, and the serving of dis-inhibiting substances. Society tacitly agrees on this and there is a certain presumption that sexual seeking is in play, and alcohol promotes people to be more bold especially in a space with increased physical intimacy. In bars, women generally arrive in groups to protect themselves against overly aggressive men. On the other hand, men often travel in groups that harks back to tribalism. Here, social order and status are maintained and decisions are made of what other tribes to interact with. In addition, beta males are enhanced by hanging out with alpha males including trickle down effect in terms of mates that the alpha male rejects. Indeed, this boils down to sperm being cheap and a highly devalued currency, whereas ova are expensive and women require more information than men before acting and mating selectively.

On New York City subways, there is a campaign about "manspreading" -- the act of taking up more than one seat by spreading the legs in a show of dominance as well as perhaps a primal sexual display of naughty bits. In bars, broad gesturing with the hands is a way of claiming turf. Moreover, volume by way of talking or laughing loudly is a way of claiming this by way of the auditory space.

In drinking society, it is awkward when things are not reciprocated. When the bartender informs the guest that they no longer want to do business with them, the unruly guest will reel it back in to try to regain status with the bartender. Or in toasting when it is bad form to toast too early or too late, with an empty glass, with something nonalcoholic, etc.; everyone is drinking the same drink and the same volume to show that there is no ill will. Not only are bonding gestures great if reciprocated and awkward if not, it is especially awkward if one of the parties is drunk and the other is not. In the company of others, memories like watching certain news or sporting events become stronger. Overall, we come to a bar to bond for it stimulates the warmth of family.

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