A Brief Study (of a Final Paper) – Mariko Tamaki

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One of the last papers I wrote as part of my doctoral studies in Linguistic Anthropology, at the University of Toronto, was a paper on Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman. This was in December 2007, after Dog had been (temporarily) disgraced by an

audio tape his son released to the media, in which he can be heard calling his son’s girlfriend a n****r. My paper focused on an appearance Dog made on Larry King Live after the tape was released and Dog lost his show. I was pretty excited when this story happened because I had a paper due for this class and, until Dog, I was a bit screwed for an essay topic. One semester earlier, I had written a paper on actor Michael Richards’s apologetic appearance on David Letterman, a disastrous live-on-TV mea culpa for using the n-word during his stand up routine. Since my Richards paper, apologies had become my thing. I spent a lot of time reading about apologies in the library. One book in particular, whose title I’ve since forgotten, had a black-and-white picture of a man bent forward in remorse on the cover. As I stood in the aisle of U of T’s Robarts library, a 20-lb sack of paper and energy drinks strapped to my back, searching through the second shelf from the bottom for a book with the Dewey Decimal number PN 123.23, my posture took on a similar regretful shape. Clearly, I was also sorry.

Example One
From Michael Richards’s Appearance on The David Letterman Show
November 20, 2006

74 MR: I I don’t know in in view of the uh uh situation and the act going where it
75 was going the rage the rage did go all over the place it went to it went to
76 everybody in the room [.] but you can’t uh y:::ou know i:::ts I don’t I
77 know uh people could blacks could feel what is – I’m not a racist that’s
78 what’s so insane about this I don’t and yet it’s said it comes through it
79 fires out of me and uh even now in the passion and the:::::: that’s here as I
80 I confront myself.

I applied to the U of T’s Linguistic Anthropology program to study racism and the use of racist accents and racial slurs in the comedy acts of the non-white, people like Margaret Cho and Kate Rigg. At the time I applied, I was obsessed with people’s use of foreign accents. People who flipped in and out of funny accents fascinated me. I wanted to study the ways people transitioned into these accents, to look at how comedians did it and then compare it to how people did it in everyday conversation. On the day of our first meeting, my (new) doctoral supervisor strongly dissuaded me from pursuing my academic proposal. The study of comedians, he explained, wasn’t exactly anthropology. I was annoyed – but not necessarily completely surprised – to hear this, in part because, truthfully, before I applied I had never really paid any attention to anthropology aside from a single class I took in my undergrad degree. I had to look up the definition of the discipline in order to apply to U of T. Almost every book I read on the subject was really vague and unhelpful. Still, I was surprised to hear this assessment of my proposal on the basis of the fact that it had somehow gotten me into the program. It was later suggested (by whom, I won’t say) that I might be interested in going to Japan to study Japanese. I gathered this had something to do with me being Japanese-Canadian. I vetoed this idea (because, you know, I don’t speak Japanese and was accepted into U of T to study LINGUISTIC anthropology). So, with no official focus of study, I stuck to my class work and tried to think of what kind of anthropological study I would do. I wrote a million proposals for a million different ideas and nothing stuck. I was an academic hobo.

One person whose work I read a lot of my first year in my doctorate was this guy J.L. Austin. Austin, a linguist and philosopher, in his book How To Do Things With Words, proposed (and it was somewhat accepted) that there were certain phrases that could distinguish themselves from other, regular, descriptive phrases like “the car is red,” or “I am happy,” “school is expensive,” or “this program sucks.” These phrases, a linguist, or any other person, will tell you, are phrases that can be said to be true or false. Austin said that there was another kind of phrase, a PERFORMATIVE utterance, which constituted not a description but a doing in and of itself. “I apologize,” Austin said, is one of these performative phrases. When you say, “I apologize,” you are doing the apology. An apology can be more or less happy, or appropriate, but it cannot be true or false, he added, it is DONE when someone says something like “I apologize.” Maybe because I was having such a hard time getting anything done, being performative, I was fascinated by this idea.

I apologize = I am sorry.

I say it = I do it.

Every time I heard someone say they were sorry on TV, I pressed the record button on my VCR.

Example Two — Duane “Dog” Chapman on Larry King Live
November 8, 2007

15 LK: We are in Los Angeles with Duane Dog Chapman
16 how ya- how ya handling all of this.
17 DC: I’m::a:: – still alive.
((pause))
18 LK: Other than that.
19 DC: Not very- not very good.
20 *hh I’ve been here several times sitting in front of you
21 *hh tonight it felt like I was coming to the lectric chair.
22 LK: Really.
23 DC: *hh I’m sorry – to tell you personally first of all
24 I’m very sorry. *hh I know you had also a lot of faith in me. 25 *hh Very sorry for using that word
26 *hh please don’t think any less of me
27 and I’m – going to fix it.
28 LK: All right >let’s let’s let’s< discuss it.
29 What’s in your head right now.

Ask any graduate student and they will tell you about the obsessive nature of graduate studies. Graduate work is a disproportionate study. You read an insane amount of text and absorb an almost indescribably vast amount of information when you are studying at this level. At the same time, your goal is to narrow in on the fine details. In linguistics, this focuses down to a study of individual words, the spaces between them, pronunciation, stress, and tone (to name only a few details). I once spent an hour in a classroom looking at the angle of a woman’s head and arguing over whether it was more or less angled than it was in a tape we had just watched. My professor used to rip his hair out, watching us stare blankly at the screen while he played his tapes. We missed everything.

”You didn’t hear that?” He’d moan, “Really? Okay, I’m playing it one more time. ONE MORE TIME. Can we all pay some attention please?”

It’s easy to think, during study at this level, that you are either going deaf or insane. How else could you be missing the connections, the variations in pitch and obscure references that your classmates are clearly hearing/getting? (Unless they’re all lying. Bastards). Then again, what I had also started noticing, after a total of three years of graduate studies (including my Master’s), was that just about everyone is missing most of this stuff. Almost no one I knew outside of school even wanted to talk about discourse markers or turn taking or why it often takes people so long to end a phone conversation. Even fewer people wanted to talk about the theories I had learned about the way people talked (and why). Like, have you ever noticed how people rarely pronounce the “t” in “Dupont”? Or how we use words like “eh”? Or “yah-no”?

“Isn’t that kind of fascinating?” I’d ask my friends who didn’t read (because they didn’t have to) Goffman or Heritage or even Butler.

“No,” most replied. “I mean, it’s slightly interesting. I guess.”

This is the other hazard of graduate studies, most especially any form of social or liberal arts study. It’s the fact that those details, those microcosms of sound and fact, which your academic livelihood depends on, are often either illegible or uninteresting to the average person on this earth. As a graduate student you study, read, and eventually will write books that no one else will ever want to read, and eventually you speak and hear things no one else can hear – or be bothered paying attention to.

This is why graduate students are so bad at parties, in case you were wondering. Why it is that the majority of graduate students are such poor dressers, I have no idea.

The last details associated with my doctoral career were the meanings of two little words.

All right.

Or.

Allright.

Example Two, Point One

23 DC: *hh I’m sorry – to tell you personally first of all
24 I’m very sorry. *hh I know you had also a lot of faith in me.
25 *hh Very sorry for using that word
26 *hh please don’t think any less of me
27 and I’m – going to fix it.
28 LK: All right >let’s let’s let’s< discuss it.
29 What’s in your head right now

Specifically, what my final paper was supposed to do was try and figure out what it means when a person – specifically Larry – responds to an apology with a phrase like “All right.” Does that indicate the acceptance of an apology? Is it the only the acknowledgement of an apology and, if so, does that make the apology any more or less happy? After watching the tape a thousand times, I started considering whether or not “all right” has any meaning connected to the meaning of the actual words that compose the phrase. Does “all right” mean “all is right” or does it mean “let’s move on”? And if it does, then what does that mean in relation to the symbolic nature of words in relation to meaning?

I read over 20 papers on the subject of “all right” (and the related “okay”). For some reason, the study of all right was infinitely more complicated than the study of “I apologize.”

Is that because it’s easier to be apologetic than all right? I struggled in vain to find a solid structure for this theory.

The final paper was 30 pages long. It took me about a month to put together. One person read it, or two, if you count myself, several years later. I think I understood my final theories less than my professor, who said I came to some curious, but often surface, conclusions.

It was shortly after I finished writing this paper that I began to seriously consider quitting my doctorate. In part, I think, because the idea of spending that much time struggling over details that meant so little to the majority drove me bonkers. As a writer, before entering my degree, I’d spent years trying to write things that connected me with readers. As a student, I wrote things that were academically connected to other academic writing (via reference) but barely meant anything to me. It was like solving a million puzzles while being stranded on a desert island, my only companion an exasperated supervisor whom I was convinced was trying to destroy me (although, to be fair, I had, and still have, absolutely no proof of this) and who I’m sure was convinced I was hell-bent on making his life a misery (again, no proof).

Today, I am far more fascinated with the face of Duane Chapman than I am with what he had to say that day to Larry King. I love his Grease-Lightning-flattop-meets-Barbie-Doll hair. I love his forehead with its stadium rows of wrinkles. I love his dream catcher earring and gold chains that make him look a bit like Mr. T. I like to think about him sitting in his room, the day of his appearance on Larry King Live, picking out that earring and brushing his hair, practicing his hound dog sorry eyes in the mirror.

Mariko Tamaki is a Toronto author and instructor. She is the author of one novel, two collections of non-fiction, and, most recently, two graphic novels: Skim (with Jillian Tamaki) and Emiko Superstar (with Steve Rolston). Mariko is currently working on a YA novel about freshman year. For more information go to www.marikotamaki.com and check out the “news” section.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Lukas Blakk (not verified) on Tue, 09/01/2009 – 22:54.

I’m so glad we (the people, your readers) did not lose you to grad school for a millions years where they would beat you down to a boring, unable-to-party piece of pulp. Thankfully you chose the path of most connection with readers and wrote this excellent article. I trust there will be many more to come. It is actually interesting to read about what worked and didn’t work for you as a PhD student. Also, you are incredibly funny and academia isn’t ready for your wit and charm…not to mention the fabulous sense of style.

Submitted by Melvin (not verified) on Tue, 09/01/2009 – 13:26.

Hilarious!!!!