Storytime 1: fast culture and slow culture on Oprah

One of our fundamental principles on M-T-F is that the future is not just for cool-hunters. It’s not just about the latest fads. That’s fine for the fashionable futurist. But real futurists are interested in the whole of the future. We’re interested in both fast and slow culture

Here’s a little story from my ethnographer’s notebook. Years ago, I did an Oprah show. As it turned out, I was on Oprah to make the case for slow culture. A designer was there to make the case for fast culture. And we fought. Well, collided.

Slow culture

I was sitting at my desk, working away, minding my own business.  A junior academic living in obscurity.  An ink stained wretch hoping for tenure.  Think something out of Dickens…with a Canadian accent, eh.  My life was about to change.

The phone rang.  It was Amy from Harpo Productions in Chicago.  Amy wanted to talk about my work on homeyness.  We chatted for awhile.  And that was that.

A week or so later, Amy called again.  Would I like to come on the show and talk about my work?  I said, “Sure, I would.”

Nothing happens in the academic world without the knowledge and approval of the department secretary.  I took my news to Barbara.

“Oprah Winfrey?” she said with reverence.

I nodded.

“You?” she said dubiously.

Barbara revered Oprah.  Me, not so much.

Barbara made further inquiries.

“On the Oprah Winfrey show?”

“In Chicago?”

“On television?”

I nodded.  Barbara’s eyes narrowed.  Something was wrong with the universe.

I arrived at O’Hare Airport on the appointed day.  I’d been told where to look for the Harpo limo, and sure enough, there it was, purring curbside.  I stepped inside expecting to have the car to myself, and I was surprised to find someone in place: a woman dressed all in blue.  She was wearing a blue Chanel suit with blue matching stockings.  The suit had those little black bands over the pockets.  Her hair was pulled back in the socialite manner, held by a little black band in the back.

A look of instantaneous dislike passed between us.  Conversation inched forward.  It turned out that the woman in blue was the other expert to appear on the show.  She was a New York designer and the author of a recent book on design in the home.

“My publisher has printed an extra 50,000 copies,” she said, “What about you?”

I had no book and no publisher.  I had a photocopy of my original, academic paper.

“Oh, you know, we’re talking about it,” I lied.

We made our way to a Chicago suburb and stopped in front of an attractive middle class home.  Taping commenced.

The first shot took place on the outside, to show the “experts” entering the home.  We were supposed to climb the stairs, hit the doorway, look to the camera and say,

“Hi, Oprah.  We’re here at the home of the Sullivans, and we’re going inside to take a look around!”

The blue-suited woman dispatched the task effortlessly.  She hit her mark, dispatched her line, and the producer said, “Perfect. You’re a doll.”

My turn came.  Repeatedly.

“Grant, let’s do it once more.  But this time maybe a little more oomph.”

I tried a couple more times, but it was clear I was hopeless.  I could see the producer thinking to herself, “Where did they find this guy?”

“Can you be a little more…vivid?” she asked me.

“Um,” I said finally, “you do realize I’m Canadian.”

No one thought this was the least bit funny.

The next shot was to capture our reaction to the Sullivan’s home.  The designer strode down the hallway into the kitchen.  She said something like, “Well, it’s obvious this is a family with no sense of design.  None!  Look, at these curtains.  Wrong shape.  Wrong size.  Wrong color!”

I cast a glance at the poor Mrs. Sullivan who was cowering against a kitchen wall.  She was beginning to have doubts of her own.  I couldn’t watch.  Nursing the terrible knowledge that I was bad television, I slunk into the living room.

And there were Dan, the father, and Danielle, the daughter, doing what they called the “Pocahontas dance.”  A couple of days before, they had been to see the Disney movie.  Danielle, blond, sunny, and about 6, had “memorized” her own scrambled version of the theme song, and father and daughter, oblivious to the commotion in the kitchen, were now performing it.  Dan picked Danielle up, threading her across his shoulders and sliding her back down to the carpet.  Danielle sang throughout these exertions, and as she dropped to the carpet, she finished with a joyful flourish.

The designer had swept out of the kitchen and was now, it seemed to me, laying waste to the living room.

She said something like, “Oh, look at this furniture.  I mean, really.  Everything is pushed to the wall.  No sense of proportion.  No sense of placement.”

I took this as my cue.  I signaled for the camera, and as it swung towards me, I said,

“Well, actually, there’s a reason the furniture is pushed to the wall.  It’s to make room for the Pocahontas dance.  Would you like to see the Pocahontas dance, Oprah?”

The producer looked around in panic.  She spotted Dan and Danielle and cued the camera man with a desperate, pointing gesture.

Just in time.  Dan and Danielle were already exuberantly lifting and singing.  It was perfect.  Had Dan and Danielle known they were going to be performing for national television, the performance might have been anxious or labored.  As it was, they were merely sharing a private joy.  It was about the sweetest thing you ever saw.

The producer gave me a look of new regard.  I might not be good television but I could see what was.  The designer, on the other hand, was staring daggers.

We went to a couple of homes.  The designer was predictable.  No one in suburban Chicago seemed capable of grasping the simplest precepts laid down by the New York design community.  Her job was apparently to mock and diminish.  My response was predictable too.  I kept suggesting the Sullivan home represented something remarkable, that this family had turned 2000 square feet of concrete and drywall into something happy, homey, and theirs.

The contrast could not have been more clear.  For the designer, these homes were a scandalous descent from the Platonic perfections of New York design.  For me, they were an ascent from a very different alternative: a cruelly anomic room at a Motel 6.  Designer and anthropologist were utterly different students of what was happening in the Sullivans’ home.  The Oprah producers had chosen us well.  Out of this tension came a show.

We were talking about two kinds of culture.  The designer was talking about fast culture.  I was talking about slow culture.

[an excerpt from McCracken, Grant. Chief Culture Officer. New York: Basic Books.] 

Published by Grant McCracken

I am an anthropologist who studies American culture. Some of my books: Dark Value, Culturematic, Chief Culture Officer and Transformations: identity construction in contemporary culture. I've taught at Harvard Business School and MIT. I am a self funding anthropologist. I spent half the year writing and half the year consulting.

One thought on “Storytime 1: fast culture and slow culture on Oprah

  1. I am one of the only people I know who has never watched Oprah. What a Remarkable Event is portrayed here.
    I loved reading this story! —-
    Almost makes me want to watch the show.
    But I sense —I’d rather watch YOUR show.

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