Imaginary Social Worlds: A Cultural Approach

By John L. Caughey | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Social Relations with Media Figures

In order to act acceptably, or pass as a member of society, an individual is required to know about particular people.1 On the Pacific island of Fáánakkar, a person unable to tell the names, salient characteristics, and personal histories of members of his or her own matrilineage would immediately be unmasked as an outsider. A member of Fáánakkar is also expected to know the names, characteristics, and personal histories of Fáánakkar spirits.2 In any given society it may not be enough to have information about those one "knows"; one may also be required to possess information about beings one has never actually met. In American society it is not spirits that one is required to know about--it is media figures.

There are several classic tests of whether or not a person is truly "American." In Europe during World War II, strangers dressed in American uniforms and speaking fluent English might be Americans lost from their own units or German spies. Standard interrogation questions designed to test American affiliations included inquiries about persons the individual could not be expected actually to know--for example, "Who plays first base for the Philadelphia Phillies?" Answering such questions successfully was literally of life or death significance. A similar situation occurs during psychiatric interviews in American mental hospitals. Here failure to answer questions about American media figures--"Name the last four presidents"--is taken as a serious symptom of mental abnormality.3

The true American knows about more than a handful of base-

-31-

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