An Anthropology Of One’s Self. Difficulty Focussing On More Than One Task At A Time


For quite a while now, every time I address the desktop computer on which I’m typing this sentence I am torn from three directions. Before I left Surf City the three comprised 1) you, the reader, 2) readying myself for the move north, and 3) trying to find a satisfying, well-paying job. Now that I’m finally back in the Pacific Northwest, where I belong, the three poles have changed. I think of you first, as always. Then comes looking for that job. Lastly, unpacking and making this a home.

I often feel like Jerry Lewis’s hapless bellhop…


The sad truth is that I end up paralyzed. Or, more to the point: I’m unable to focus on any of the three activities. Worse, when I do manage to focus on one of the tasks I’m thinking about not doing the other two. That, of course, lessens the likelihood that I’ll do anything like the best job I can on whichever of the three I’m working on.

As an anthropologist and archaeologist who knows all the ins and outs of optimal foraging, embedded activities in a seasonal round, rational decision-making, and so on. Despite that, the explanation for my inability to conform to such theoretical frameworks is a profoundly black, black box. I seem to be cognitively or behaviourally inept at apportioning my time. And, when I do manage to apportion my time to one of the three, I spend most of it worrying about giving short shrift to the other two. I think to myself, “Is multi-tasking a myth? Or am I just a misfit?” I have no answers. No compelling ones, at any rate. According to every cultural materialist tenet, as a human being I should have no difficulty doing what’s needed, and in the right order of priority, exactly like a wolf would, or any modern humans worth their salt. Am I a freak of nature?

Hardly. [Used here in the sense of definition #5.]

The answer lies, I think, in the particular way in which my personality developed—through my acculturation in a milieu that was rife with contradictory [and mainly negative] responses to whatever it was I chose to do at any one time. I’ll admit, that’s more a psychological hypothesis than a purely anthropological one. Except, perhaps, that my early learning took place in a subset of western Canadian culture in the 1950s and early 60s. I can still hear my dead Dad reminding me that “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” And, if the job I decided on was akin to colouring outside the lines he’d grumpily state that “If you give [him or ’em, I’m not sure which] and inch, he’ll take a mile.” Take-home lesson: be careful what you choose to do, lest you be punished for it.

I could come up with a thousand more vignettes to explain what goes on in my psyche, but it wouldn’t change the reality. If I have to divide my attention, the result is a diminished finished product. [Aaaaaaaaaand we’re back to “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” It’s vicious (sense 2), I tell you!]

So. Where does that leave you and me? Unfortunately you take a back seat to the other two. I have been working on a blurt about Jim Enloe’s spatial analysis of La Grotte du Bison, at Arcy-sur-Cure in France. Bison is the little-known sibling cave phenomenon adjacent the more famous La Grotte du Rennethe La Grotte du Renne from which one of the few claimed “Châtelperronian” assemblages was recovered. While less well known, Jim Enloe’s recent work on the taphonomy of Level I at the Cave of the Bison is consequential. So, while I’m dithering, why not give it a read? It’s behind a paywall, of course. But I’m certain that you can find a way to procure a copy if you’re exceptionally good at the Google.

Enloe, J. G. 2012 Middle Palaeolithic Cave Taphonomy: Discerning Humans from Hyenas at Arcy-sur-Cure, France. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 22: 591–602.

For the moment, then, it’s back to the job of getting a job—perhaps the most work for least reward of almost any activity of which I’m aware. *sigh*

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