Postering in the Ethnographic Gaze

One can get to know his fellow student best in the Yard at sun-up

Early last Monday morning, I offered to help a student group I belong to with a round of postering in the Yard. I am, however, forced to admit that this was not an act of noble sentiments, a sudden blush of neighborly feeling that struck at dawn. I woke up to be an ethnographer.

When anthropologists observe cultures, they oftentimes choose a particularly unique social phenomenon that allows a glimpse into that culture’s canon of values: a Balinese cockfight, for example, or a Pueblo rain dance. These are the times when a people’s deepest shared emotions are on display, when their ideals and dreams take on ceremonial form. The good ethnographer realizes that these behaviors are not just aesthetic curiosities. They are codebooks of culture.

So what better time to watch the indigenous Harvardians than when they are dancing before their favorite altar, the posterboard, offering up devotionals to their extracurricular totems? Here the onlooker may glance at what it means to be a member of this peculiar culture, so strange to the uninitiated onlooker. Here we may make guesses into the unique code of ethics that animates and invigorates these people.

The ceremony begins at 6:45 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, when tribes gather in tired-looking knots in front of the John Harvard statue or near the Science Center. Each has a leader, whose priestly position is designated by a roll of masking tape and an armful of posters. The devotees gather around these clan leaders to prepare their choreography. Who will perform the Sever-Lamont corroboree? What unlucky low-status tribesperson will be saddled with the Wigglesworth archways?

Suddenly, somebody notices bejacketed custodial employees approaching with trash bags, and the excitement mounts. As soon as one of them tears down the previous week’s layers of posters, the first dance begins. Seven or eight eager posterers mob the most coveted spaces—reader boards near Thayer and Harvard Hall. Soon more crowd around, getting more anxious as the virgin brown surfaces vanish from sight. Taken from afar, the untrained observer sees only an orgy of arms and tape, flailing and indistinguishable.

The scene has the aspect of warfare about it. Nobody looks at each other, though all recognize that they are locked in a high-stakes battle for square inches. Yet a tentative order tempers the chaos: All at once, somebody searching for space covers the bottom third of another poster, obscuring the date and location of the Glassblowing Society’s first meeting. The wounded party shoots an angry glance at the offender. Perhaps the fight will break out into outright poster defacing, silent and malicious, or perhaps the infraction will be allowed to pass for now.

On the steps of Pusey Library, devotees attempt the impossible task of coaxing tape into adhering to damp stone. Magicians are called in with new tapes and new methods. Sometimes their efforts work; the dominant clans earn prominent viewing space. Other times the ritual is a complete failure, and magnificent banners of taped-together posters billow out into the wind before skittering, tumbleweed-like, across the pavement.

By 7:30 a.m. the frenzy has subsided; tribespeople break off for communal morning meals. Some will rejoice in their success, and they will measure their clan’s power in Attendees, the culture’s only recognizable currency. Many others will have found their courtship a failure, their meetings thinly populated and their cultural capital vaporized. Neither outcome is cause enough to forego next week’s performance. These Harvardians, laboring under a catastrophe of ambition, will be out here again.

Even if it is tempting to look with disdain or bemusement upon these fanatical customs, the good anthropologist must remember that every cultural scene is the product out of a legitimate system of meaning. For the bleary-eyed people who come out here every morning, there is a sort of mysticism in their extracurricular plans, and a deeply—held belief in the efficacy of their eight-and-a-half-by-eleven” icons. And so, when I left the Yard that morning, head full of field notes, I had already began to miss these people and their rituals. May they prosper and be well in their exotic paradise.

Garrett G.D. Nelson ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a Social Studies and Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator in Cabot House.