Spinning Stories

Gossip as virus
September 3, 2009, 7:09 pm
Filed under: Storytelling, Uncategorized

Gossip and rumour are often described as a kind of virus, spreading unseen and unheeded through an unwitting population, sowing devastation in their wake. They infect people with a kind of fever – a mania to pass on what they’ve heard, to spread the news.

‘Within the social organism the bacilli of rumor are always active. Sometimes they move sluggishly in nonvirulent fashion. Sometimes they burst into a fever of violent activity. The fever, unfortunately, burns most dangerously when the health of the social organism is least able to withstand its ravages.’ (Gordon W. Allport and Leo Postman, The Psychology of Rumor, 1947)


Laundry and Gossip in German
September 3, 2009, 8:33 am
Filed under: Storytelling, Uncategorized

The etymology of gossip in German (Klatsch) suggests an intriguing connection with laundry, as well as reinforcing yet again the traditional link between gossip and women.

While a ‘gossip’ in English was originally a godparent, Klatsch has a more diffuse and even physical origin. It means at least three things: (1) ‘a resounding slap’, a kind of onomatopoeia; (2) a stain; (3) a pejorative word for prattle, typical of women’s conversation. These three meanings come together in the image of the communal laundry: washerwomen beat at their linen, washing and scrubbing away stains, while exchanging news, views and opinions on their neighbours. The dirty clothes retain the bodily dirt of their owner, so, in washing, washerwomen publicly reveal private and intimate secrets – stains, holes, worn-out places. They are in a privileged position to acquire morally dubious information about the laundry’s owners – hidden information about their private affairs – along with the power and opportunity to disseminate this information. The ‘resounding slap’ of their tools (mallets, mangles, scrubbing boards) signal to the rest of the neighbourhood what is going on: not just the washing of dirty linen, but the exchange of (dirty?) secrets. This privileged access to private information may well have appeared threatening to those not privy to it (especially men?)

The communal laundry appears in this image as the perfect place to reveal secrets about absent neighbours, and to discuss interpretations, memories and comments. The laundry is also a picture of the unequal distribution of power in gossip: not everyone has access to the places in which this kind of knowledge is exchanged.

Women have traditionally had easier access to these kind of places because of the division of labour between the sexes. This might help explain why women are also traditionally branded ‘gossips’, even if men and women are no different in their actual production of and participation in gossip.

(Jörg R. Bergman. Discreet Indiscretions: The Social Organization of Gossip, 1993)

Roland Barthes and soap
August 28, 2009, 10:06 am
Filed under: Laundry Instructions and tips, Uncategorized

In his famous work unpicking some of the iconic symbols of 1950s France, Mythologies, Roland Barthes turns his attention to soap powder adverts. He’s interested in how each product describes its relationship to dirt: chemical fluids are dangerous substances that need to be carefully regulated; they ‘kill’ the dirt, but could also (if used too abundantly) ‘burn’ the object. Soap powders are less aggressive: they gently separate the dirt from the object, ‘liberating’ clothes from the invasion of grime.

Two examples of adverts from the fifties: Persil compared two towels of different degrees of whiteness, appealing to our vanity and our shame, and presenting us with a finished product, miraculously cleansed of dirt. Omo, on the other hand, involved the consumer in the process of cleaning, describing the means through which its powder gently coaxes the grime away from the fabric, infusing its rich foam into the clothes with a light, airy, yet powerful cleaning substance.

What both adverts did was hide the abrasive action of soap powder with a persuasive narrative of air, foam, luxury and miracle. And Barthes also points out that hiding behind both products, despite their rival status on the market, is one and the same multinational company: Unilever. (Roland Barthes, ‘Soap-Powders and Detergents’, Mythologies, 1957)

An anthropology of gossip
August 28, 2009, 9:36 am
Filed under: Storytelling, Uncategorized

In about the last fifty or sixty years, anthropology has turned its attention to gossip: an activity that was previously considered marginal and unworthy of serious consideration (perhaps because it was linked to unofficial talk, frivolity and women…) Anthropologists now take gossip very seriously, trying to figure out its function and place in social groups and struggles for power. Here are some rival interpretations of what gossip is about:

Gossip is a game, undertaken by members of a social group in order to maintain the coherence and unity of that group. When people gossip about each other, and about outsiders, they make ethical judgements about behaviour and maintain their group’s social values. At the same time, gossip is a means of social control: it polices acceptable behaviour and reinforces the values and demands of the dominant group. It’s like a ‘social weapon’ that members of the group can use against each other. So gossip is not idle: it is an important means by which conflicts are resolved or exacerbated, values are maintained and transmitted, and group unity is reinforced. It has social functions and rules, and the right to gossip about others is not automatic: you have to properly belong to a group before you’re allowed to gossip. (Max Gluckman, ‘Gossip and Scandal’, Current Anthropology 4:3 (1963), 307-16)

Some anthropologists have a problem with Gluckman’s idea of gossip as social glue: that is, that it’s the individual who gossips, and not the society. Perhaps, then, gossip is a type of communication – it transmits information that protects an individual’s self-interest. Gossip is a device that the individual can manipulate to increase his or her standing in the community. The gossiper tries to collect information that he or she can then use to forward their self-interest: he or she tries to make their version of a story prevail, but also makes sure they have access to the flow of information. So gossip is still about control, but it’s the individual’s control of information that increases or decreases their social status, rather than social control of the group. (Robert Paine, ‘What is Gossip About? An Alternative Hypothesis’, Man new series 2:2 (1967), 278-85)

There have been attempts to reconcile these two points of view, arguing that gossip was both social (like Gluckman) and psychological (like Paine): it is individual activity in a social setting. Gossip is fundamentally about reputation – about the good names of the gossipers. This poses a problem for the anthropologist, who is particularly interested in social status and reputation, but who perhaps doesn’t understand the stakes involved in trying to get a sample group to share this kind of information with an outsider: where the anthropologist thinks he or she is being scientific, neutral, their subjects see a gossip who is trying to steal their good names (and write the information down, setting it in stone for ever). Passing on gossip to an anthropologist is, then, a means of confusing the issues and trying to mislead the questioner: gossip is a means of misleading others, throwing sand in their eyes, so they don’t form prejudicial – or even just firm – views on someone’s standing or status. (Peter J. Wilson, ‘Filcher of Good Names: An Enquiry into Anthropology and Gossip’, Man new series 9:1 (1974), 93-102)

Or perhaps gossip is like an economic transaction, in which information is exchanged for profit and mutual benefit. It can be informative – trading news, providing a kind of map of the social environment; moralising (when used to manipulate others or to bargain for psychological or even economic environment); or entertaining (when it’s exchanged between people in an equal setting). (Ralph L. Rosnow and Gary Alan Fine, Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay. New York: Elsevier, 1976)

Gossip is good for you. Perhaps it is the development and equivalence of mutual grooming among other primate species, and that human language evolved precisely for this purpose: to soothe, reassure, and strengthen the bonds that exist in a community. Where chimpanzees will spend hours grooming each other’s fur, human beings will sit and chat for ages – in fact gossip makes up most of our everyday conversations – and the result is the same: a feeling of well-being and belonging. Rather than to make hunting in teams easier, or to allow us to express some metaphysical truths, language evolved to enable us to gossip. (Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. London: Faber and Faber, 1996)

A launderette thief
August 27, 2009, 5:13 pm
Filed under: Laundry Stories

The woman who works in the launderette under our flat is concerned about a thief who seems to come in at nights to steal the Cup-a-Soup and jam tarts that she keeps in the back of the shop. We haven’t heard anything. And since there’s no sign of a break-in, we think it must be someone with a key and also someone who is – as she says – “hungry”.

Illegal Storytelling
August 20, 2009, 1:21 pm
Filed under: Storytelling

Storytelling can be dangerous and subversive… A sixteenth-century French edict forbids workers in the textile industry (specifically, those manufacturing gold, silver and silk cloth for the royal household) to tell stories, recount adventures, or to chat in any way that would distract other workers from their tasks. Storytelling seems particularly to be feared after lunch.

 This is obviously an attempt to keep workers concentrated on their work, and not on the gossip of their friends and acquaintances. But I wonder whether there’s another danger here, of stories slipping into something more sinister and dangerous… the edict goes on to forbid blasphemy, swearing, slander and insults that might lead to quarrels and violence. Storytelling might not be so easy to keep within the bounds of decency and decorum…

Parisian washhouses and satire
July 30, 2009, 5:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Public baths, or estuves, in early modern France had something of a reputation as sites of gossip and talk. This is perhaps not surprising since they served as a meeting place (single-sex) for men and women of the neighbourhood, where they would go to get washed and groomed, but also to share gossip and learn news. It’s also maybe unsurprising, given the hoary old clichés of women’s talkativeness and frivolity, that women were singled out in contemporary literature as particularly prone to gossip in these public places (others were the mill, the public oven, church, the market, or anywhere things were bought and sold). One early seventeenth-century satire, called The Cackling Women (Le Caquet des femmes), printed in 1622, makes fun of contemporary women’s calls for equality by portraying them in a washhouse, submerged in the water up to their necks or noses, rabbiting on about education and opportunity. (The image of women in together in the public baths was also supposed to be a titillating one for the male reader, I imagine.) But even in satire, these caricatured women make some good points: one says, responding to the idea that women’s reputation as gossips is just good fun: ‘But it’s about your honour: all that can only turn out to our disadvantage. If there’s a good jest, or joke, or mockery, it always falls on women, and women always have to put up with it; I don’t know how their backs cope with it all, they have to carry such heavy burdens sometimes.’

Some historical notes on public baths in Paris: built on the model of ancient Roman steam baths, they were found on the banks of the river, near the gates of town, or in quiet streets. They seem to have been places of ill repute since the Middle Ages: at least the city authorities tried to regulate their existence and operations, and may well have banned them outside the city walls, since by their very nature they were places that were difficult to police. People who ran these establishments (the estuviers) weren’t allowed to advertise their opening hours until the day itself, they were expressly forbidden to let men and women into the baths at the same time (they had separate baths), and they weren’t allowed to open on Sundays or other holidays. The baths were frequently closed for public health reasons, since contagious disease spread easily in the warm water, with bodies in such close proximity.

– All this information is from a nineteenth-century history of the public bath in Paris by P. S. Girard (‘Recherches sur les établissements de bains publiques à Paris, depuis le IVe siècle jusqu’à présent’, in Annales d’Hygiène publique et de médecine légale, Paris, vol. 7, 1832), where the author enthusiastically praises the progress in hygiene and cleanliness that washing (and public baths) has caused.