What is a potlatch?
A potlatch is a gift-giving festival and primary economic system practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and United States. This includes Heiltsuk Nation, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Coast Salish cultures. The word comes from the Chinook Jargon, meaning “to give away” or “a gift”; originally from the Nuu-chah-nulth word paɬaˑč, to make a ceremonial gift in a potlatch. It went through a history of rigorous ban by both the Canadian and United States federal governments, and has been the study of many anthropologists.
And so an ego-potlatch, like the one I just went to, is where everyone turns up, throws their presence into the centre (think a key party, before folks get naked). Then someone starts with a little light self-promotion and it gradually/rapidly escalates into chest-beating displays and transparent self-promotion. A food fight develops, with people flinging (motherhood and) apple pie at each other, sentences (well, pages) and sentiments that no rational human being could disagree with. “We should be kinder to the planet.” “Poverty is a Bad Thing.” “Somebody should do something at some undefined time in the future.”
People listen to each other, or rather, to the gaps where they can insert their bits. And they make sure they defend their turf, if it even looks like it’s being attacked. They fling apple pie too.
And every so often a genuinely good and potentially transruptive idea will come up.
But woe betide the person who says “right, how are we going to implement that idea? Who is going to do which bit by when? Who will support them in that?”
Because that is NOT what an ego-potlatch is about. It is in fact precisely what an ego-potlatch is NOT about. Nobody has to commit to do anything. It’s simply we agree to eat each other’s pigmeat. To complain about the absence of SMART goals at an ego-potlatch is like complaining about the lack of car chases in Proust‘s (oh so apt) “In Search of Lost Time.”
See also: key parties [won’t someone think of the emissions!], circle jerks, circular firing squads, pointless talking shops, collusion