Monday, September 12, 2011

What's the value of those "where I was on 9/11" posts?

This may sound awfully curmudgeonly, but why do so many people write posts/articles about where they were on 9/11? Why is there even a site dedicated to collecting these stories? I don't want to tell people how to run their blogs/columns/skywriting service, but I am curious as to what the impulse is behind this.

Is there something therapeutic about returning to memories of that day--are the writers trying to work through their trauma (or the traumatic lack of trauma for those who have very tenuous connections to the famous sites of that day)? Are they offering their stories as part of some collective attempt to capture that day in the hope that... what? Is there some trace of self-indulgence in thinking about the unalloyed trauma --before things got really bad--as pointed out by this Onion article, "Nation Would Rather Think About 9/11 Than Anything From Subsequent 10 Years."

When my parents tell me where they were when Kennedy was shot, it helps me understand my parents more; and it gives me a view of history that I might not otherwise have. Maybe some future generations will get that same educational value out of these stories of where regular people were on 9/11; but I don't care to read them because I can't see the value.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Is Wilfred (US tv series) a buddy comedy or a dog-and-man comedy?

That's a terrible question because so many dog-and-man comedies are really just chips off the classic buddy comedy block. Think about the classic Odd Couple--uptight guy vs. messy guy. Now, remember Turner & Hooch--uptight guy vs. messy dog. Free-spirits tend to come in and teach uptight people some things about life, and occasionally, vice versa. (Maybe Paul Rudd's Our Idiot Brother is really about a golden retriever--they're usually as affable as Rudd.)

In fact, the introduction of a dog--or a baby or a stoner--into an uptight person's life is a tried and true formula, and it doesn't totally seem to matter which it is for the general plot development, as long as it's one socially adjusted person and one socially maladjusted person. (Maybe this is why The Odd Couple endures: both of them are both adjusted and maladjusted and we take both their sides.)

(Similarly, many zombie apocalypses really set up some tension between the people left; so the zombie part could be replaced by many other types of apocalypse as far as plot development and character growth go. So, in these mismatch movies, it doesn't matter what the mismatch is.)

So, what about Wilfred, the tv show where Ryan (Elijah Wood) is a social drop-out--he doesn't want to be a lawyer and the first episode involves a suicide attempt, which is really taking "maladjusted" almost too far--and he meets the dog Wilfred, who he sees as a man in a dog costume (Jason Gann)? Who's the socially-adjusted one?

The dog in human society is definitionally maladjusted, as evidenced by the times when Ryan follows Wilfred's lead (shitting in a neighbor's boot, having sex with a stuffed animal). In other words, we put up with a lot of dog's behavior because they're dogs and don't know any better. But in Wilfred, from our POV, seeing a man act like a dog reminds us how this is inappropriate behavior.

But Ryan, as I already said, is no Felix--he tries to commit suicide, he smokes a lot of pot, he talks to a dog. But I think there's still a tension there in that Ryan has the possibility of being a socially adjusted human, whereas Wilfred, not so much. (Oh, this just makes me want to read Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog, where a Soviet scientist turns a dog into a man.)

Or maybe recent buddy comedies and other sitcoms (following Seinfeld's lead?) have changed their dynamics; as with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, maybe there's no desire to have a nice, normal person to play off against the others--you just need everyone to be cracked in a particular way.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why do conservatives love the mythological Reagan?

I don’t love being in the position of psychologizing from afar (or attributing “false consciousness” to people I don’t really know), but that’s the sort of position we have to occupy once we agree on some pretty indisputable facts:

a) Reagan’s policies (as a whole) would put him to the left of the leaders of the Republican Party right now.

Ezra Klein has a pretty good summary of how the Reagan administration pivoted from some textbook conservative policies once they failed (hmm, these tax cuts don’t seem to be working) and implemented some non-conservative policies (these tax raises help offset the deficit, who woulda thunk it?). If you think Mitt Romney has to distance himself from the Massachusetts health care laws, imagine what Reagan would have to do to distance himself from four tax raises. Would Grover Norquist even let him into the tax pledge club? (Also, see here for more on the Gipper's heterodoxy from today's orthodox.)

b) Conservatives love Reagan.

Is this simply a case of nostalgia smoothing over the rough edges of Reagan’s policies (besides his tax raises, Reagan’s rough edges include engaging in diplomacy with our potential enemies without preconditions!)? Is this simply another case of conservatives revising history to make it more in-line with their own beliefs (e.g., the real racism today is against whites, therefore the Civil War wasn’t really about oppressing black people but about the government oppressing white people, big government argle bargle)? Is this simply biographical nostalgia, a longing for a time when they were young(er) and carefree?

I know I have to fight my urge towards monocausotaxophilia (thank you, Kim Stanley Robinson, for that word), the love of single causes to explain complex effects. With such a complex issue as this, it could be many or all of those factors and a few more besides. Actually, I'd guess that every conservative might have slightly different reasons for this, though I'd be surprised if those factors didn't factor in somehow for everyone. (Heck, it was the 80s--when we could watch Stallone shoot up Afghans and Soviets! When men could be men and women in business were marked as dragon ladies who just needed to inherit a baby to be turned into real women!--and what conservative wouldn't love to turn back the clock to that time?)

But on top of that question (why do conservatives love Reagan and ignore his policies?), I have another: why do they even need to hold up a hero without holding up his policies? My ungenerous impulse is to say that there's some more father-figure worship, some identity-politics that wants character without policy (policy often means compromise).

Does the left do this with, e.g., FDR? I don't see it; I bet if you Google N-grammed "FDR" vs. "New Deal" in left-liberal blogs, you'd find a pretty high number of people referencing policies rather than people. Is there a conclusion to be drawn here (a conclusion that isn't too self-serving, like "the left is actually interested in governance, whereas the right just wants an ideal myth")?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How do you read Tom Lehrer's song "Smut"?

I've been listening to a lot of Tom Lehrer recently because I've been trying to write comedic songs for my comedy writing class at the Second City and are you still reading this sentence?, because it's not getting any better.

Let's cut to the chase: Lehrer is very ironic and often political--is there a way that his political irony supports some actual political position? Or is his irony critical of any political position? Does it have answers? Or only questions?

(It occurs to me also that Jonathon Coulton is not so much a Snuggie, as opined by a Planet Money guest host, as he is an apolitical Tom Lehrer, making catchy funny songs out of nerdy things. Coulton's "Re: Your Brains" is a funny song about a terrible coworker-turned-zombie, but it's not as acid-pointed as Lehrer's "Wernher von Braun," about the Nazi scientist-turned US scientist whose "allegiance is ruled by expedience.")

Let's take Lehrer's most ambivalent song, "Smut," a song that defends pornography because it's fun, not because it's a freedom of speech issue. Here's how the song goes:

(If you need help following the words, here are the lyrics.)

So, what do you think of that? Does Tom Lehrer support pornography or does he support limitations on pornography?

We don't get any help from Lehrer's tonal choice or from his rhyme choice. That is, wouldn't it be great if the use of slant rhymes and forced rhymes showed that Lehrer was being ironic? Well, unfortunately this song features a mix of forced rhymes ("uncut / unsubt...le") and perfect rhymes ("quibbled / ribald / nibbled"). So we're not getting any help there.

(And doesn't Alan Moore's Lost Girls seem like an expansion of the lines about Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz being a dirty old man?)

Lehrer really digs in here, to the point where a First Amendment-supporter (or any American bourgeoisie) might be uncomfortable: are you sure you want to be on the side of hardcore, the obscene, the "lurid, licentious, and vile," the dirty, slime, the indecent, the filthy, etc.? Lehrer rings through a lot of terms that most people don't want to associate themselves with, especially in a public audience.

And this is why I think this song is really powerful. Because it's cheap and easy to support free speech, Lehrer wants to make it more expensive for us:
But now they're trying to take it all
away from us unless
We take a stand, and hand in hand
we fight for freedom of the press.
In other words,

Smut! (I love it)
Who doesn't want to be for freedom of the press? Everyone supports freedom of the press in the abstract. Supporting freedom of the press is easy, and there's nothing heroic about doing the easy thing, a joke that Lehrer drives home in the spoken intro to "The Folk Song Army":
You have to admire people who sing these songs. It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee-house or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on. 
But when Lehrer sings, "freedom of the press. / In other words, / Smut!," he's making our support of the First Amendment a little more costly to us by showing the connection: "freedom of the pres"="smut!" So if we totally support the First Amendment (of course, I do, what a ridiculous question!), then we support the free speech rights of pornography (oh, hold on a minute).

So where does Lehrer fall on that issue?

I'm not actually sure; I could say that he supports free speech, but that's partly because I want him to fall in line with my thoughts. (Which is often a problem of interpretive criticism: we want our favorite creative types to share our feelings. That's one reason I love H. P. Lovecraft: he keeps me honest since I can't pretend that he shares my politics.)

But I could also say that, in pointing out the connection (free speech = smut), Lehrer is hinting that we need some limitations on free speech. Or maybe he's implying that banning pleasure is a losing proposition? Or maybe, with that line about obscene "murals" and "stained glass windows," he's pointing out the class issues of prohibitive laws (oh, we can enjoy our ____ just fine, but those poor working-class slobs just can't be trusted with alcohol/porn/violent media/the vote)?

So, it seems to me that Lehrer poses some complicating questions, but I'm not sure he provides any answers. Is this the condition of all intersections between comedy and politics?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Does the government work (in fiction)?

I don't have an answer for this one.

I just finished Justin Cronin's The Passage (my negative review here), which hits a bunch of "government bad" tropes: the US government surveils intrusively; can't prevent terrorism; can't rebuild storm-ravaged New Orleans; funds secret experiments; kidnaps children; unwittingly unleashes a plague of vampires on the world. And then, in the post-vampire apocalypse, the fictional government we see has a much smaller scope (a colony of a hundred people), but hardly inspires trust.

Actually, how many fictional apocalypses do you think have government roots? Probably more than the apocalypses that are rooted in private action. (Off the top of my head, I can only think of one privately-caused apocalypse: Ward Moore's Greener Than You Think. There's got to be more, though, right?)

But what about non-apocalyptic situations in fiction: does government work in a day-to-day capacity? Or is it too hopelessly corrupt and too baroquely complex to do any work?

(Although here's a thought: once we include "police" as a category of government, does the rate of successful work go up?)

Monday, September 5, 2011

What's the difference between "ferrets out" and "sighs"? (On Andrew Sullivan)

Actually, this is a post on speaker attribution, but it's sexier to say it's about Andrew Sullivan (meaning: Andrew Sullivan's blog).

I greatly enjoy Sullivan, even though he's frequently wrong (he generally admits it, eventually) and has a worldview (Catholicism, conservatism) that means that, on some level, we disagree about the foundational facts about existence. And this goes (broadly speaking) for his under-bloggers and interns--I have some differences with them, but I generally think they bring up interesting things.

But Sullivan & co. occasionally drive me crazy with their speaker attribution verbs--"says," "ferrets out," "sighs," etc. 

For instance, recently, ZoĆ« Pollock recently wrote that "Kristin Dombek ferrets out one reason for The Book of Mormon's success"; and then Pollock goes on to quote Dombek talking about the success of religion. That's an obvious mistake and a somewhat common one over at The Daily Dish: they often quote the part that seems most interesting (why is religion successful?) even when they point to the actual topic of the essay (why is The Book of Mormon successful?).

But that's not what bugs me. What bugs me is that Pollock refers to Dombek's speculation as "ferret[ing] out." Did Dombek hunt for this insight intensively? Did she bring this truth to light by following it down some rabbit hole? Or did she look at some stuff and say, "hey, here's an idea I have that isn't really supported by any particularly large body of evidence?"

Now, I enjoyed Dombek's piece, but I think Pollock throws a little too much weight behind Dombek's idea through her choice of words--and what's worse, does so without coming out and saying it.

To be fair, though, Pollock is just one person and you can see that this issue is pretty widespread at the Dish if you look for "sighs" as a speaker attribution; for a few examples: "Adam Serwer sighs" (and here), "Greg Scoblete sighs," "Amanda Marcotte sighs," "Felix Salmon sighs."

It makes me wonder if Sullivan sees other people as balloons with tiny pricks in them, slowly sighing out their disappointment.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How would you update Jekyll and Hyde?

A translator once told me that foreign books have to be re-translated on a generational basis--every 50 years or so, if I remember correctly--because of shifts in the target language. It seems to me that a similar thing may be true of all sorts of texts: we need someone to update them as we go along.

I don't mean that we can't enjoy the original Sherlock Holmes stories as they are; I just mean that certain issues can shift in focus, so that an updated version may help us to understand our present, in a way that the original couldn't. (Although switch it around: the original can help us understand the past; and comparisons between the two may help us understand the process of history. Yay, something for everyone!)

Look at Steven Moffat's Sherlock: Holmes is still a sociopath savant, Watson is still helpful but slower than Holmes, the crimes are still a little ridiculous--just like the originals. But rather than just play the old stories over again, Moffat's Sherlock can play with the homosociality of Holmes & Watson (which raises the mashup idea: Sherlock on the Jersey Shore) and with the notion of the instability of labor.

(In other words, Holmes is a consulting detective, which sure sounds nice; but how is that different than the hellish uncertainty of an adjunct professor or a day laborer? Monk also played with the economic uncertainty of being outside the institution.)

So, let's say you wanted to update the Jekyll and Hyde story, what should get emphasized while keeping the same general themes of the book?

It seems to me that you would have to jettison the central mystery of the Stevenson story (Jekyll and Hyde are the same man!) since everyone probably knows that already. But perhaps there's some other suspenseful mystery that could be added. (I've only just started watching Steven Moffat's version of the story, which includes a potential conspiracy, so it seems like that's the mystery: what do other people want with Jekyll?)

In my mind, Jekyll and Hyde lives near Frankenstein in that they both have a Gothic imagination of science; I guess you could push that element and make Jekyll into... a rogue AI avatar of Hyde. Say, Hyde is a computer specialist and a therapist, he creates a program to help cure people--which does help, but the program turns out to be malevolent. (Rather than just helping you deal with your issues of abuse, the AI would become the abuser.)

But it doesn't seem to me that Jekyll and Hyde is primarily a story about science-out-of-control. (And how many evil computer programs do we really need in fiction to help us deal with our insecurities about computers?) It's primarily a story about sin and repression--Dracula without the invasion worries.  So the question isn't "what technology are we worried about?" (as it would be with Frankenstein), but "what do we feel about sin and repression?"

What's the answer to that? I'm not sure.

(Although it occurs to me now that Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea takes a very Jungian position on Jekyll and Hyde; that is, Ged splits off his shadow,  just like Jekyll does with Hyde; and the shadow then ruins things a bit, like Hyde; but the solution for Ged is to reabsorb that shadow and accept it as part of him, which seems like an unthinkable solution for Stevenson's text. And then there's the Dorian Gray solution, which isn't very clear.)