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Author’s Note: The following is a collection of five short stories about “The Thin Man,” which were written over the past few months. This post completes his Singapore chapter, which sees him wash ashore after an extended period on a submarine, take a corporate espionage gig out of necessity, and land on his feet although he probably doesn’t deserve to. The Thin Man is my protagonist. I don’t want to say hero. He is a kind of avatar of my own character if I had no ties to the material, social, or familial world. They say “write what you know.” I’ve spent a lot of time at industry events, in hotels, and in bars, so that’s what I’ve written about. All of the original pieces as well as Andrea pieces (my heroine) are over at I hope you like the work.



For Eyes. Long may you bat baby

Part I:

Here comes a regular
Paul Westerberg
It’s predicted to rain on landing/ I predict we’ll have a drink
Paul Westerberg

Once upon a time in the lost city of Atlantis, a thin man rolled up looking a little the worse for wear. This was probably only to be expected; after all he had been sequestered on a submarine for a period of 22 years, or was it 27. After that long at sea, who can really tell?

It was approaching Halloween, and the proverbial Spooky Lady’s Sideshow was in full effect. The barmaids were called Eyes and Baby, their real names we presume. Or was she Baby Blue? In any case, the thin man and Eyes made eyes, in an innocent way, at least so the story is told.

Groggy as the thin man was, he had had a specialized role down then on the sub. You see, he was a bit of a mechanic, a card shark. Now, a card shark can work clean as well, and the thin man worked clean down there on the ocean floor. He saved his best moves for away games, just like Mike McD in that film Rounders. That’s an oldie but a goodie!

In one corner of the bar stood a pool table, where, of course, the nine ball is always on. The thin man could play a bit, although Eyes sized him up quick. A game was proposed, a game for two players.

But of course no game is really ever between two players alone. Baby Blue was watching—tough to tell her rooting interest. And the bar as a whole, the field so to speak, was tuning in to the frequencies of the game as the regulars made small talk and the travelers weak-tea passes at the local girls. Local girls are no push-over; sometimes folks get the wrong idea on that end. Certainly Eyes and Baby Blue could take care of themselves.

The game began; the thin man potted a few easy balls. Eyes surged back, she’d been around more than she looked. She was an expert at drinking what the punter was drinking. That’s a key part of the art of the barmaid, an underrated profession at the best of times.

The game was nine ball, what else? Eight ball is for rookies, a southerners game. The thin man hailed from the north and he knew a thing or two about sequencing. It goes with the territory of an undersea mechanic, after all.

The thin man was beginning to feel a bit ill–the combination of sea legs, Eyes’ Eyes, a cheeky Cognac or two, and the unfortunate wafts of burning tires from the docks (it all goes down on the docks, as is told). He carries on nonetheless, and takes a two ball lead when Eyes surges back, tying it up with only the 9 ball to go. It’s a touch and go situation. The skeletons muse over the action with as much interest as they can muster from beyond the great blue veil. The couple on the rail stops sniffing whatever they are sniffing, and ask the thin man to join them for a round. No time for that nonsense. Sea legs and beady cat eyes aside, the game is the game.

A couple of desultory shots bounce about as the players size each other up. Baby blue leans in; the skeletons whisper sweet somethings, even the bartender sneaks a peek. Everyone is getting paid, except the thin man. He is just there for the action.

Eyes edges the nine right up to the pocket, leaving the thin man a clean shot. He leans in from the left and drops it, silky smooth like. Baby claps and Eyes bats. Game over, though the thin man knows that Eyes could have had him the whole time. She was just being hospitable. A good host for a weary traveler.

Elevator music plays soft in the bar as a dandy and a courtesan dilly and dally. Jack and Jill went up a hill. It’s an old story.

The thin man has a date with a pretty lady later, not exactly a lead, more of an assignation. Promises are promises though; the clock on Eyes and crew is ticking, regretfully. The thin man always did like the locals; heck, it’s part of the travelers creed. After all, everybody is local somewhere. Time to extricate himself. See her around.

The thin man bids his goodbyes and staggers out into the night. His coat and his hat are still in his possession, all he needs really to get through the night. He picks up a walking stick from the side of the road and issues a thanks to the one who left it in place. This will help him with the uphills; the downhills he has always managed fine. The spirits are about and the air filled with magic and mystery. The thin man tugs on his cap, keeping his head down. Others may prefer to waste away with Margaritas and Mojitos in the lazy afternoon, however the thin man has a new assignment. Kicks off at 8 AM sharp. Time to get a move on.  He pretty lady is lost in the night.  Gotta cede that one, not for the first time.

He had to leave most of his belongings on board ship, and he carries only the stick and the clothes he has on him. A beggar man approached him earlier and the thin man was able to make a wee bargain, a pot of soup and coffee for the beggar in exchange for his pockmarked and moth-eater coat. Anything is better than nothing, muses the thin man. Another traveler’s rule.

Without an inn for the night, the thin man has but one option, a local church. After all, churches are supposed to offer food and shelter to the poor man, and the thin man, underwater respiration skills aside, has rolled into town pretty destitute. An old man opens the church door. A place for the night, the thin man asks? Nothing like that, however we do have a cellar, says the gatekeeper. That will do fine, replies the thin man.

The cellar turns out to be a taxidermist studio, with eagles and bison on the walls. It is what is is; the thin man muses, and falls into a deep dreamless sleep.

Upon waking, the room is transformed. No more heads of the dead, instead he awakes in a cloister with pure light steaming in through the window. The clarion call of church bells, the Nine Taylors if you will, ring out across the square. Not a bad deal, thinks the thin man. A peal is better than a deal after all.

Part II:

The cry of a peacock, flies buzz in my head/ ceiling fan’s broken, there’s a heat in my bed/ street band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Bob Dylan

Dateline Singapore: Late Fall During the 200th Anniversary of the End of the Great War:

This little country, such an unlikely success story, such a strange winding of forces. The Thin Man has been on land for two weeks and his sea legs have mostly subsided. His stomach is still in limbo; years of gruel below the waves have seen to that.

Now there is nothing more that the Thin Man wanted after washing up here earlier in the season then a long weekend. Say, five years. Five years in the hammock, five years frolicing with the lovely ladies at the bar with the occasional flyer over in Macau. Five years out of the swim of modern capitalism, if you can even call it that. Five years clean. That was the dream. Twelve days in and the Thin Man was looking for work, the money gone in a haze of long days and longer nights. Wine, women, song, and a speedboat ride or two will add up quick. C’est La Vie partner. That’s what comes from burning holes up to heaven, in the words of the bard.

The Thin Man is a gamer, and is constitutionally unable to categorize situations as problems. No problemo senor, no worries mate. Instead, he has a few issues. The first being, he is barely employable. It turns out that a few decades on the ocean floor running the house game prepares him for casino work, underground games, and giving blood. That’s about it; he wants no part of card games and giving blood makes him nauseous. Also, he has a limited quantity. So, he asked around, kept his ear to the wind. A shipmate turned him onto a broker of services of sorts, the kind of individual who specializes in assisting upstanding institutions with their shining mission statements and their CSR campaigns navigate the grey areas of competition and market position. The broker, like all of his kind, couldn’t give a shit who he was pimping as long as he got his 8% commision. It was he that took the Thin Man’s data points and turned them into a resume which accentuated the high stakes, low reference point nature of his previous work. A bite came back within 36 hours. The broker knew his lane, apparently.

The man from Company X introduced himself as Alejandro, and Alejandro came bearing work. “What sort of work,” asked the Thin Man. Alejandro’s smile was thin as a razor. “The best kind, the kind where you get in and out.”

“I deal cards,” replied the Thin Man, “I’m not a safecracker.

Alejandro’s smile widened fractionally. “Of course not. We are a respectable company with a 400 year history. This work is simple. The company is in negotiations around a merger with Green Group Ltd. They are playing hardball and we need to know their real intentions.”

“Basically you want to know if they are bluffing?”

“Precisely. And who better than an operator such as yourself to find this out?”

“And what do I have to go on?”

“The Green Group will be having a party at the Swissotel downtown tomorrow night. There will be 200 guests. You will infiltrate the party and get the lowdown. That is what you British say yes, the lowdown.”

The Thin Man was not British but it didn’t matter. “Yes, that’s right. OK, book me a room on the club floor. I’ll need a new suit, a haircut, and a cell phone. How’s $500 a day for expenses and $20,000 for the job?”

Alejandro eyed him carefully. “What about the broker?”

“That’s your end,” said the Thin Man. My end is $20,000.”

“Deal. Don’t fuck up.”

“I don’t intend to.” And with that the conversation was over. The Thin Man had acquitted himself well, but only by the grace of god. Several things were running through his mind:

i) was $20,000 a lot or a little for a one-night stint of corporate espionage? Alejandro had bit right away so perhaps he was underselling his services. Or, Company X was desperate;

ii) 200 people at the party and the Thin Man knew not a one of them. He’d have to research, chose a few likely targets. Two weeks of carousing and there wasn’t a lot of research energy to spare. He’d need to make minimal and efficient moves;

iii) he had no bank account. His severance had been paid in cash and he did not intend to stay in Singapore forever, however appealing the locale. He’d need to get legal sooner rather than later. The very thought fatigued him, so he grabbed the Handy phone the hotel provided and headed to the bar.

Dateline Singapore, that evening, around 17:07.

Well apart from the things that I touched/ nothing got broke all that much/ and apart from the things that I took/ nothing got stolen babe, and look.
Matthew Houck

The Alligator Pear is the poolside bar at the Swissotel, and the Thin Man figures tomorrow’s party will be at held around the pool. Thus, this visit is classified as reconnasaince. This visit is billable, baby. A single couple lingers over a menu across the way. “What’ll it be?” asks the bartender? “Do you have any eggnog” asks the Thin Man, more out of habit than preference. The bartender gives him a sideways look, as if he is not sure who the joke is on. “No sir, I am afraid we only serve eggnog during the Christmas week. How about one of our signature Manhattans?”

Manhattans, they taste like mouthwash.

“Sure a double Manhattan. And pop an egg in it would you?” This time the bartender doesn’t even blink. “Of course, sir. One Manhattan with a raw egg.” The drink is served and the Thin Man knocks it back straight. It is as disgusting as an adult beverage can be. “Perfection,” says the Thin Man. “I’ll take a double martini with a sprig of Rosemary please.” As the barkeep makes his second drink the Thin Man turns to survey the space. Despite knowing no one and nothing about tomorrow evening’s party, he has a few advantages. First, event spaces are inherently permeable. More on this later. Second, he has nothing to lose. Nothing whatsoever. The $20,000 is what you call a titular payment. Hypothetical. His sainted mother has long passed; his poor dear widowed sister may as well exist in a different century. The Costa Rican chick who claimed he’d knocked her up in ’04 was probably still out there, but he had no confidence in her presentation of events. He was only on shore for 48 hours and months under water tends to take a few miles off a guy’s fastball. She was sweet, but it was probably a hustle. So like I say, nothing to lose, and therefore easy to underestimate. That’s what the Thin Man is counting on. He’d better; the bastard’s precious little else.

The martini is served and the Thin Man takes a deep drink. Three men approach the bar, lanyards around their neck, ties beginning to come undone, voices high. The Green Group, thinks the Thin Man, excellent. He takes a deep breath and turns his head slightly to the right, cementing his presence in their field of vision without being at all threatening or intrusive. “Can you fuckin’ believe Bill?” asks one of the men. Pulling up sick on a day like this, the company going to shit?” “I think he’s faking,” says the second man, a lifer in his early 50s. “He’s always been weak like that. Looking to cover his ass.” “Fucking wanker, if you ask me,” replies the first man. “Pussy.”

The Thin Man looks up at the men and smiles. He sympathises. He will be their good friend tonight. Corporate espionage, he decides, is like everything else. It’s just a matter of intention.

Read the rest of this entry »

imagesMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

Original to Gemini Kid

Out on the town the other evening, our dinner was joined by a colleague who had been in a high position at my office about 4 years ago before being transferred to the central corporate body (university) where he was assigned to the events section, a section which, in practice, takes care of a lot of miscellaneous, relatively minor, activity.  I had seen him in this capacity when a delegation from my office visited a two-day conference in Tokyo.  He was one of the people checking the attendance of attendees from our corporate body, a nearly totally superfluous task.  He had experienced, as they say, a sideways move; a form of demotion for those who have moved high enough in the organization to be beyond strict demotion.

When I had seen him in this capacity, he had struck me as almost totally neutered; someone who had surrendered himself so entirely to the required form of his role that almost no personality, no being, remained.  A mannequin of ritual bowing and clipboard checking.  I wondered what it had been like for him to come to terms with his utter lack of necessity to the organization; wondered how one processes and balances whatever ambition had driven him to his original post with the terrifyingly banal judgment of the sideways move.  At least with a proper demotion, a stripping of title, a firing, one may take consolation from a specific failure to meet what is required, one can, if one wishes, reflect, learn, move on.

At dinner, his behavior was deeply at odds with the person I had last seen, indeed with his whole professional demeanor as I had known it.  He had shaved his head.  He spoke loudly and aggressively.  He nodded over-confidently, conferred the benefit of his agreement arrogantly.  He appeared to have been drinking earlier in the evening.  I also learned that he had been transferred yet again, this time to Sapporo, the far north, a land where labor is in demand and the employer not all that picky.

I wondered, and was not able to find out, what the nature of his position there was.  Another sideways move, almost certainly, but was it one that conferred the dignity of an outwardly impressive-ish title?  Or was he simply buried, entering that category of employee who is shuffled around the organization, taking four postings in eight years, a box filled at the end of the day by HR?  I liked to think the latter, not out of malice but in support of a micro-theory: that he had simply given up “behaving;” that his move north had freed him of the need to “maintain expressive control” (Goffman, 1959, p.51) so as to present the acceptable front or performance required by the atmospheric tonalities of the central corporate body.  Appearance transformed quite dramatically by his shaved head, his behavior at dinner was still banal, but in just the opposite manner of his earlier banality.  Two sideways moves in four years had juttered loose the remaining vestiges of his professional dignity and he had simply shed the learned social sheen required for those who would scale the organization ladder.  So I theorized, in any case.

Two notes; i) The sideways move is an under-investigated phenomena, worthy of deeper study.  What happens to people moved sideways, once, twice, three times?  Does this even happen much these days, or do such people fall victim to lay offs?  What should organizations do, if anything, to motivate the sideways shifted employee?  ii) In the first paragraph above, I describe the events section as dealing with minor matters.  This is in no way to suggest that events are of minor importance.  Rather, the way that events are considered and integrated in most organizations relegates them to mostly minor status.  The event may be sold and re-sold–it may be central to the branding of the organization, the centerpiece of the year–but too often the operation of the event is left to inertia and bureaucracy, especially if it has been run before.  This is a tragedy of great depth, as the event has the ability to transport participants out of the realm of the mundane and drop them into a field of transcendence and timelessness as deep as it is temporary.

333Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at

Dream: Series of loosely connected dream incidents, but in the dream itself they flowed seamlessly into one another. First, although of course something was happening before this as well, I am watching my son play in the PGA. He is on the 16th hole, and the only kid in the field. Later I learn that it is unusual for kids to play in the PGA championship, but at the time this does not seem odd. You do not have to qualify, only sign up. He is playing well for his age, but nowhere near winning. Suddenly, he slows up and shows signs of being tired. He walks off the course and his group moves on. The leader is in his group. I take him off the course and he says he wants to quit. I tell his that’s OK, but he only has two more holes. He jumps up and runs back to finish, but his group is already done (very fast) and the player from his group who was leading has won. He is accepting the trophy, and plays the two holes quickly. The course is mostly clear.

Jump cut to a field in what seems to be Venezuela, but is never absolutely demonstrated to be so. I am a soldier, probably an American, with a pack on my back. I am in a platoon and we are moving. The grass is pretty high and we are in a small valley, perhaps. There is a sense of tension, but not of great danger. We sit down and open our packs to eat. There is barely enough food to subsist, and I have a few dollars US and a few pieces of Venezuelan currency. Later, it will emerge that I have about 17 US and maybe 80 or so of the local currency. This does not seem sufficient, especially because I get the sense that this money will need to last for a while. Other soldiers have the same meager food rations, but appear to have more money.

Jump to a bar/ food area that same night. Still in the same country. I want to eat, and drink, so I circle the choices, but everything looks expensive. There are many people, some soldiers, some businessmen with women, maybe locals, and some random expat drunk types. The scene is not very dignified, but people appear to be having a good time. It is pretty loud. As far as food and drink go, there does not appear to be any other choice in the city. So, I order a red wine from a very nice woman at a bar. She says I can pay her a few dollars. I pull out my American money and the local currency, and she nods at the American. I lay down three, and she shakes her head. I add another five, which I feel should be sufficient. She shakes her head again and quotes me her retail price, which seems absurdly high. I pay her another five American which is nearly all I have. She is still not happy, but is placated, and I leave quickly. A few people are watching. I look at food stalls, especially one offering pastrami sandwiches. The price is quoted in the local currency, and I just afford one sandwich. Although I am very hungry, I do not purchase one. In fact, the whole night passes without my having anything to eat.

Sometime later, after more wandering and an interlude in another bar which is well lit (or is that later?) I find Kelly Rudd, one of my oldest friends. He is fully himself. We decide to go to an outdoor bar where there is a tent shelter structure, pretty large, which we sit in. I look at the menu and can afford just one drink. I tell Kelly this, and he halfway indicates that he will take care of the bill. I am unsure about this. I want to tell him about my life–maybe we haven’t seen each other for a while, but on the other hand maybe he is a soldier in my platoon. I begin to tell him about a shotgun I have smuggled into the country. Although I am military, he reacts like this is a highly dangerous act. Thinking more about it, I probably didn’t smuggle a gun, because my luggage is not large enough. Aware that I am probably fibbing, I continue with the story. A waitress asks us through the tent wall what we want to order. Kelly orders red wine, after a lot of trouble getting her to hear us. I look around the edge of the tent, but somehow it is clear that we need to communicate through the tent wall. Looking around the corner I get the sense that she has been listening to our conversation for some time. Maybe not so long, but long enough to have heard about the gun. I am concerned that she will go to the police. I tell Kelly about some of the things that are on my mind, and he seems only partially interested. He gives me little in return. We are drinking, and I am almost finished with my drink when I realize that it is a Corona, not red wine. I am mildly put out by this, but more puzzled by why I didn’t notice. All of the sudden we are no longer in a tent but on a blanket or ground sheet in roughly the same position. However, there is a large auditorium (whose shape I know from previous dreams, I think) behind us. I see the head of my high school, walking downhill toward us. I think that he is going to censure me about some various work issues, but instead he walks a short distance away behind some bushes and urinates. He is quite drunk. Several more people from work stumble by, some of them urinate. Then, the blind teacher, who retired last year, comes down the hill with his cane. He is looking for a place to urinate. My mother’s aunt, indicates a spot just a few paces past our blanket. I tell them that it is too close, but it is too late. Somehow I am given to understand that I am supposed to be in the auditorium for some kind of speech or ceremony. I decide to avoid this if at all possible and stall by getting up and milling around.

Jump to the inside of a large gymnasium. This may or may not be the same building, possibly not. Instead of the ceremony, I am at basketball practice. There are a couple of coaches, and the head coach is in a white T-shirt. I am kind of involved with the play, kind of talking to the coaches. John Innes may or may not be a coach. Practice seems to go on for a long time. Not much happens. Then, on the far side of the floor I am talking to the coach and see a play developing. A strong point guard is driving the right side baseline and beats his defender for a lay up. Most of the players are female, and this point guard may have been a female at the start of the drive as well. The defense gives up, but I can tell he/ she will miss the layup. I circle in from the left and, taking the rebound, I dunk it without coming down. The dunk transpires in slow motion. I expect everyone in the gym to be amazed, but only a few people notice. Practice is moving on, but I try to call it to a stop by explaining how the weakside defenders should have been blocking out and how when defenders don’t a player can get offensive rebounds. A few people start to listen, probably because I seem like a coach/ adult figure. Then, more people are listening, then they are sitting down, they they are all in the bleachers as I talk. I go through the matter in detail. My father becomes the coach. I can’t see his reaction to my speech, but at some point I realize that it is time to cut it off. Practice is over, and the players spill out of the gym. My father comes over and takes me by the arm. He tells me that some of the more intelligent players may have been able to follow what I said, but that most players are not intelligent enough to follow more than one idea at a time. I don’t really know what he is talking about, because, although I spoke for a while, the ideas were pretty simple and obvious. I try to push back a little, but he becomes increasingly strident. Finally, we are outside and I see my mother. I tell my father that he is obviously uncomfortable with complex ideas, and shake free of his arm. My mother makes an inquisitive face, but I just shake my head. Out of the dream, a little timer beeps, and I wake up. It is just after 6 AM.

That’s the end of the dream proper, but either after this of before it, or running throughout, there is anxiety on my part about how I will get out of this country (all the basketball activity took place in the same country). I visualize the border crossing, which I seem to have been to before in a previous dream. There are logs across the border and soldiers. It is not terrifying, perhaps because I have been there before and crossed, but it does create anxiety. Again, it is not clear when this anxiety comes to me, if it is a postscript to the dream or sort of a running commentary.

First interpretations: This dream is about communication, specifically my poor communication skills. At different turns I am frustrated by my inability to communicate clearly and with my audience’s lack of interest and/ or capacity to understand. Whether negotiating the price of a drink (small matter) or talking about my life to an old friend or giving a speech to a large group, what I expect in terms of a reaction and what I actually get are at odds. It is not clear who is at fault in any of these incidents, and in fact in the dream I feel an alternating sense of frustration with others and frustration with self. Especially with the bar woman, I am aware that I “do not speak the language” and should be more intuitive about what she means, but also in the basketball speech, even as I am speaking I know that I am going on too long, and insisting on the importance of what I am saying too much. This dream seems important in that it encompasses most of my life stations, parents, my own family, work, and friends. Interestingly, my communication with my son seems to be the most effective, and the golf is the only incident that does not seem to take place in Venezuela.

Impressions: At least two things in the dream reference other dreams–the auditorium and the border. Thinking about it while awake, I have memories of both of these dreams. Of course, not having kept a dream journal at the time, I am not absolutely clear whether these dreams really took place in previous months or if there were in fact part of last night’s dreams. I had a lot more dreams last night as I woke up from dreams several times, and this dream sequence here recorded was, I think, only the last tail end bit.

The drunk coworkers, one of them literally blind! are instructive. First reaction is perhaps overly positive–although I am poor at communicating, they are worse and require me to take control of communication. Finally, the long night trope is a staple of my dreams, especially those I remember well. This dream fits very well into the long night theme, although the basketball practice was in the late afternoon, and may have therefore been a flashback. Especially the drunken revelers, the various types of ladies of the night in the background, and the stumbling from place to place are characteristic of my “long night” dreams.

social-media-conversionMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at

Statement on Intent and Concern #II: On “role drift”

This post is the second in my thirty-fifth birthday series, and takes up that sexiest of subjects, “role-drift.”  In this post I will connect Laud Humphreys’ investigation of “the Tearoom Trade,” that is, casual homosexual encounters in public toilets, the initiation process in the United States military, and the conversion of Paul the Apostle.  Those easily offended by sociological explanations of religion, of sexual preference, or of the comradeship among soldiers should cease reading immediately.

Recently, I finished reading a book–which, as my next post will detail, is a somewhat rare occurrence.  The book was Laud Humphreys’ “The Tearoom Trade,” published in 1970.  It concerns men hooking up with other men, usually strangers, in the public restroom facilities in St. Louis, and it is an eye-opening read.  The blurb on the book jacket pretty much tells the story: “Many American men seek impersonal sex in public restrooms.  Called ‘tearooms’ in the argot of the homosexual subculture, these restrooms are accessible to and easily recognized by those who wish to engage in anonymous sexual encounters {…} By passing as deviant, the author was able to engage in systematic observations of homosexual acts in public settings.  Methodologists will be interested {…} in this unusual application of participant-observation strategies.”  Indeed, methodologists everywhere, I can say without hesitation, were and are all ears.  But the odd thing is that Humphreys, married and purportedly straight when he conducted his research, later divorced his wife and came out as gay.

Now, it may not be considered particularly odd that someone, sociologist or no, who spends several months or years in public toilets observing “insertors” and “insertees” would himself come out eventually, and Humphreys’ persistent use of “us” and “we” to refer to the denizens of the restrooms of St. Louis appears, in retrospect, to be something of a “tell.”  Consider, for instance, sentences such as the following: “when a group of us were locked in a restroom and attacked by several youths, we spoke in defense and out of fear {…} This event ruptured the reserve among us and resulted in a series of conversations among those who shared this adventure for several days afterward” (12), and several other similar uses of plural pronouns.  (It may be of interest here that Humphreys and his study of tearooms enjoyed a brief week in the sun a few years ago when Senator Larry Craig of Idaho was arrested in an airport bathroom stall for foot-tapping–Humphreys covered this topic as well, making clear that foot-tapping was, in 1970, a well-established method of making contact from stall to stall, and already in use by police decoys so many decades ago (20, 87).)

Indeed, the whole study is fascinating, and peppered with wonderfully matter-of-fact passages such as: “There is a great deal of difference in the volumes of homosexual activity that these accommodations shelter.  In some, one might wait for months before observing a deviant act.  In others, the volume approaches orgiastic dimensions.  One summer afternoon, for instance, I witnessed twenty acts of fellatio is the course of an hour while waiting out a thunderstorm in a tearoom.  For one who wishes to participate in (or study) such activity, the primary consideration is one of finding where the action is” (6) (alert readers will recognize the influence of Erving Goffman here; Goffman’s study of gambling establishments is titled “Where the Action Is”).  But the passage which really caught my attention deals with what Humphreys calls “role instability” or “role drift.”  He makes two major points; i) those who start out pitching tend to end up catching; “It appears that, during the career of any one participant, the role of insertor tends to be transposed into that of insertee” (55) (Humphreys attributes this tendency to “the aging crisis” common to tearoom participants); ii) “If {straights} remain exposed ‘too long’ to the action, they cease to operate as straights” (56).  Humphreys here is not referring to men who one day, by accident, may wander into an operational tearoom, but rather to members of the parks department or vice squad who, over time, may be exposed to a wider swath of tearoom activity.  Here is the key passage:

“When some communication continues to exist, parents tend to be ‘turned on’ by their pot-smoking offspring.  Spectators tend to be drawn into mob action, and kibitzers into card games.  Even police may adopt the roles they are assigned to eliminate:

‘It is a well-known phenomenon that when officers are left too long on the vice-squad–the maximum allowable at  any one time being four to five years–they begin to ‘go over’, adopting the behaviorisms and mores 0f the criminals with whom they are dealing, and shifting their primary allegiance'”(Here, Humphreys is quoting from Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner from 1967.  My emphasis).

It is a well-known phenomenon that when officers are left too long on the vice-squad they begin to ‘go over’. The moment I read this, having known of Humphreys’ own history before I read his book, I immediately recognized either a brilliant justification for future defection or an alternative, sociologically-based, theory for how sexual preference is formed. Read the rest of this entry »

MForm Function Bangleatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at

Statement of Intent and Concern: Berger and Luckmann on Typification and Reification

Everything’s connected.  Reading the classics, which do not talk about sunsets, has made many sunsets, in all their colors, intelligible to me.
Fernando Pessoa

An apprehension of reification as a modality of consciousness is dependent upon at least relative derefication of consciousness, which is a comparatively late development in history and in any individual biography.
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman

This is the first in a projected series of posts which will represent an attempt on my part to synthesize a variety of theoretical and practical concerns that confront me as I approach thirty-five.  This post will begin with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, a book we have looked at before here on Sympathies.  I have re-posted the original post so that readers can familiarize themselves with the work.

A good deal of the writing on this blog has taken as its theme the relationship between the individual and the institution, and we have seen various attempts to come to terms with the ideal stance of one who, as we all do, exists within the grasp of institutionalization.  In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann spend 45 pages on the topic of institutionalization, and what they have to say provides me with my jumping off point.  They make the point that while man (and yes, The Social Construction of Reality, published in 1966, uses the outdated gender-specific catch-all term for humanity), makes his world, he is given to losing sight of this and projecting (“reifying”) aspects of the social world so that they are perceived as entirely external and beyond his control.  “Man’s self-production is always, and of necessity, a social enterprise.  Men together produce a human environment, with the totality of its socio-cultural and psychological formations” (51), but, being prone to reification, they will sometimes “{apprehend} the products of human activity as if there were something else than human products–such as facts of nature, results of cosmic law, or manifestations of divine will.  Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world {and experiencing it} as a strange facticity, {…} over which he has no control” (89).

When mis-apprehending (social) reality as something other than the product of his own action and consciousness, he forgets that “the social world was made by men–and, therefore, can be remade by them,” but, ironically, “reification is a modality of consciousness {…} Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it” (89).

Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it.  I would like to extrapolate this to mean that the perception of sedimented, externally controlled or created, facticity continually creates the very facticity in question.  Put slightly differently, the denial of agency diminishes, uncreates, free-will, while the exercise of free-will depends in large part, perhaps entirely, on the strength of one’s belief in it.

Now, this is not to argue that reification is simply false-consciousness, or that groupings within society do not go to considerable trouble to perpetuate and legitimate reification of their activities.  Berger and Luckmann make this quite clear in their analysis of what they call “socially segregated subuniverses of meaning” such as “Hindu castes, the Chinese literary bureaucracy, or the priestly coteries of ancient Egypt” (85), not to mention lawyers, doctors, television pundits, university English departments.  They write that subuniverses  “become esoteric enclaves {…} to all but those who have been properly initiated into their mysteries {…} The outsiders have to be kept out {but} If the subuniverse requires various special privileges and recognitions from the larger society, there is the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure.  This is done through various techniques of intimidation {…} mystification and, generally, the manipulation of prestige symbols” (87).
And generally the manipulation of prestige symbols.  Indeed.  Those who engage, consciously or unconsciously, in the manipulation of prestige symbols are, in Berger and Luckmann’s language, involved in creating a “typification.”  The acceptance of typifications, in turn, sediments social facticity and brings into being a taken-for-grantedness in the performance of social actors.  “The typification of forms of action requires that these have an objective sense {…} In the course of the action there is an identification of the self with the objective sense of the action {…} Although there continues to be a marginal awareness of the body and other aspects of the self not directly involved in the action, the actor, for that moment, apprehends himself essentially in identification with the socially objectified action {…} In other words, a segment of the self is objectified in terms of the socially available typifications” (72-3).  The authors point out that after the actions of the typified actor have been carried out, in, say, the privacy of the home, the meditation chamber, the confessional, the actor may re-establish a certain “role distance,” but this distance is apt to shrink again when the times comes once again for the actor to take up the role by re-activating the segment of the self objectified in terms of the currently applicable socially available typification.

This discussion inevitably brings us back to Mr. Inch’s post about sartorial conformism/ non-conformism.  Longtime readers will recall that Mr. Inch wrote, “Reflection on MT’s devotion to this apparently innocuous task, knotting a piece of cloth around his neck each morning, leads us towards what has become a key element of many recent theories of ideology. Derived from Pascal’s advice to non-believers, ‘kneel and pray, and then you will believe’, the French philosopher Louis Althusser sought to assert the materiality of ideas, and how ideology works through our actions as well as our words to define us as certain sorts of subjects.  For Michel Foucault, one of Althusser’s students who sought to break with Marxism and the concept of ideology, the knotting of that neck-tie might have been considered a ‘practice of the self’, a way of disciplining oneself in line with a particular matrix of power and knowledge. The question that I think both of these thinkers struggle to address, however, is the extent to which we are able to shape our own selves, rather than simply being shaped by power.  What scope do we have to resist the power embedded in these apparently mundane everyday motions? {…} By kneeling to pray, or standing in front of the mirror adjusting the knot, we perform belief and so take on socially available identities.  And as for the rest of us in that office – what was the effect of not knotting the tie each morning? At times there were no doubt some who reveled in the non-conformity of that not knotting.  In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting?  Was not wearing a necktie not just another kind of necktie after all?”

In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting? Read the rest of this entry »

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