Just a short video from one of the more enjoyable neighborhoods in Toronto. Actually, Claire and I saw something similar to this in Kensington Market this weekend, but during the day, so without the fire.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Holy smokes! Michelangelo Antonioni, who was another one of the big names in art house cinema, has just died at 94. I don't remember much about Blow Up, but Claire and I watched The Passenger in Paris last summer and we both left the theatre feeling like we had seen something unexpected and eye-opening- have you ever seen a work of art that pushed you to redefine what could be done in that medium? It wasn't a masterpiece exactly; it just went places with the narrative that I really hadn't seen before.
Monday, July 30, 2007
I suppose I should say something about Ingmar Bergman, since I have read everything interesting about him that I could find today. Admittedly, I am a bit intoxicated right now, having drunk a few swigs of Whyte & McKaye scotch whiskey and a few bottles of beer.
Anyway, the criticism of Bergman's films that strikes me as most bizarre is that they are 'pretentious'- to me pretentious means relying on MTV- style editing, weird camera angles, and special effects because your story is piss poor. There are countless modern films that are pretentious- 300 anyone? But it's hard for me to see Liv Ullman talking directly to the camera, and discussing the sort of personal information that most people will never share with anyone, as 'pretentious'. It seems so unguarded to me. There's a monologue in Persona that struck me as more real, in that way that most people will never be real lest they come off as perverse and strange- than anything I've ever seen in a movie.
I think the first thing that draws me to Ingmar Bergman's films is the honesty of them. There are scenes in his movies that feel so raw and real that I can't imagine how he could have written them- the spider/God scene in Through a Glass Darkly, or the scene in Fanny and Alexander in which the husband cries about being a failure, or the scene in Persona in which Bibi Andersen allows Liv Ullman to walk on broken glass- I have no idea how Bergman tapped into those scenes- which feel like they could have only come from the subconscious minds of the characters themselves. How did he come up with the dinner scene in Hour of the Wolf? What about the end of Shame? How did he figure out so many secret aspects of so many different people?
Maybe the second thing that draws me to the films is how universal they are. When he deals with death in The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries, it's hard to say that he's dealing with specifically Swedish themes- actually, I can't think of a Bergman film that could really be called culturally-specific. This probably gives the lie to the criticism that his films were 'elitist'- but it also gives the lie to the banal idea that art is important only for what it tells us about specific historical contexts- Faro in Bergman's films could be anywhere, and everywhere.
I also love how humane his films are- for all of the talk about how gloomy the average Bergman film is, he had an incredible amount of sympathy for his characters and all of their foibles. Notice how deeply flawed the father is in Saraband... now note how sympathetic he turns out to be. Or Liv Ullman's character in Persona, whose feelings towards her son might seem inhuman. Or the priest in Winter Light... Bergman might have seen the flaws in human beings, but he sympathized nonetheless with their struggle.
Lastly, I love how historical and Western his films are. In a time in which filmmakers imagine it's clever to visually refer to 1980s MTV, Bergman drew from the Bible, Shakespeare, medieval wood prints, August Strindberg, and Mozart. Whether we like it or not, the unity of Western culture is a fact that we are all stuck with. Few artists of the twentieth century have chosen to write the next chapter in that book. But Bergman had the cultivation and the will to do so.
I will write more later, no doubt. But for someone who has planned a Bergman Festival at Mall University, this is a big deal.
A recent piece of great news has been Roger Ebert's release from an extended hospitalization for thyroid cancer. I love reading his reviews. Agree or disagree with his individual assesments, Ebert is always excited about movies, intelligent in his opinions, and fair to individual artists. He has the ability to judge movies based on whether or not they accomplished what they set out to for their audience, even if he might not be that particular audience. Imagine having to watch movies like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry in this spirit! But Ebert pulls it off.
Not surprisingly, he has written something meaningful about Ingmar Bergman today. It's all worth reading. This stands out:
"There are so many memories crowding in, now, from the richness of Bergman’s work, that I know not what to choose. A turning point in his despair occurred, perhaps, in “Cries and Whispers,” a chamber drama in an isolated Swedish estate where Harriet Andersson is dying painfully of cancer and her sisters have come to be with her. After she dies,they find a journal in which she recalls a perfect day in the autumn, when the pain was not so bad, and the women took up their parasols and walked in the garden. "This is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better," she writes. "I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.""
Salon has a nice Bergman profile, in which Andrew O'Hehir argues that: "Ingmar Bergman changed the face of filmmaking -- and may have been the 20th century's greatest artist." I don't know if I'd say that, but I do think he was the century's greatest filmmaker. Anyway, it's a mute point; part of O'Hehir's article is a sad elegy for the sort of viewers who once obsessed over film and filmmakers.
"The conception that there could be a "most important" artist, or even a most important art, seems alien to the fragmented, niche-marketed, endlessly commodified spirit of the 21st century. Pop culture has become a self-propelling engine that endlessly consumes and recycles its own waste products, increasingly unconscious of anything that predates its own predominance."
He talks about watching Persona eight times in a row with a college buddy... it's a lovely piece really. Better not to spoil it. Enjoy!
(And as with most things on the Internet, avoid the comments section entirely!)
At last a fashion magazine whose position on the fashion industry is roughly face down, ass up, S Magazine is either a mildy pervy fashion mag or a really artsy skin mag; either way, it pushes an envelope that is long due for pushing. I've been saying that someone should do this for the last five years! Those of you who read the glossy European fashion magazines that cost about half my rent know that they've been moving in this direction anyway. I even tried floating the idea around with people that I knew in the publishing world; but no luck. As always... five years ahead of my time.
Posting might be a bit slow here for a few weeks; I'm getting ready to take my exams and am going through the normal pre-exam freakout. I guess it might not be entirely normal. But it seems like everyone else in the department who has taken the exams has been in panic mode for a few weeks before them. Granted, I've never heard of anyone actually failing one of these things. There's still something nerve-wracking about trying to synthesize your notes on 230 books. I'll let everyone know how things are going.
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has died at his home in Faro. It's sad news, of course, but it would be hard to imagine that he's left anything undone. He directed over 40 films, and probably 20 of them are masterpieces: I can't think of any other director in history who has a body of work comparable to Bergman's. In between films, he directed over 100 plays and nearly as many radio plays. I've never seen the plays, but my personal favorites, of the films, are Winter Light, Shame, and of course, Persona.
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Manger: To eat.
Admittedly, this is a very basic French word. But it came up in this review of The Simpsons Movie in Le Monde... and I thought that there might be some interest in this- so, for the record, the Simpsons insult for the French: "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" in French is: "singes capitulards et mangeurs de fromage".
Pullulate: 1. To put forth sprouts or buds; germinate. Assexually reproduce by pullulation.
2. To breed rapidly or abundantly.
3. To teem; swarm.
One of the books I've read recently quotes a 18th century English diplomat talking about "the pullulation of pestilential winds of war."
I should probably take it easy with all of the graphics here- the site will take hours to load!- but check out the gorgeous, dreamlike photos of birds by Patricia Von Ah, which are currently being exhibited at the SCALO/GUYE gallery in West Hollywood. I'm not entirely sure how she did it (maybe photographing from the other side of a white sheet?), but she has succeeded in making the birds look ethereal and ghostly, reminding me of those ancient pagan beliefs in which the soul left the body as a bird.
Good news from the Middle East (and how often do you get to say that?), where there has been a sharp drop in public support, or even tolerance, for suicide bombings. It's still bizarre that there ever was such strong acceptance of suicide bombings; but you'll notice that in most of the countries polled support has been, at least, halved in the last five years. It's worth noting that killing civilians is forbidden/Haram in Islam anyway. This would make sense, as it seems like it's mostly Muslims who get killed in suicide bombings; true believers hate no one as much as they hate apostates. And since the military seems to be largely useless in fighting terrorism, we should rely on public opinion- deploy the philosophers!
Anyway, it's mostly good news. Startling to see 70% support in Palestine, but not entirely a surprise, and support seems to have risen in Turkey. But, overall, it seems like the worm is turning in a good direction.
(The poll was conducted by the Pew Research Center and polled 45,000 people in 47 countries.)
Friday, July 27, 2007
Thursday, July 26, 2007
I'm not too crazy about Jonathan Meese's paintings- which look to me like a 15 year old's skate ramp graffiti. I do find his sculptures interesting. According to the Saatchi Gallery his "work exploits cultural taboo. Appropriating historical and media references. Meese parodies his own symbolism. His paintings reduce the perception (of) evil to the level of operatic theatre: simulated horror plays out in cliched formulas, resounding in contemporary consciousness as benign fable and gripping spectacle." And why should artists take evil seriously anyway?
Meese has pissed off Georg Dietz, among others, by exploiting the cultural taboo about Hitler. "'Images cannot be dispelled,"'Jonathan Meese once said, with Hitler in mind. 'If you want to be rid of certain images, you must give them the chance to fight themselves.' But it doesn't look like Meese wants to dispel Hitler; it seems more like an invocation. And the strange thing is that precisely at the time when the last eye-witnesses are dying and in a generation that seemed so free of this shadow, the temptation exists to tap into the energy of evil. In his major exhibition in Frankfurt, Meese stuck a picture of Hitler above his self-portrait and wrote "Vater" next to it on the wall."
I've noted before how unthinkingly the art market seems to champion transgression for it's own sake. This seems to me to be as banal as conformity for it's own sake. But if transgression is seen as a positive good, should we just expect artistic tributes to Hitler?
One of the things that makes a vibrant culture possible is allowing certain people to make a living creating things. I've long criticized the major record labels, for example, because they just don't pay their artists very much money. The fellow we know whose band appears on MTV frequently is still broke (last time I heard) after years of touring and appearing on MTV because of his band's contract.
So I have very mixed feelings about illegally downloading music. On the one hand, it's hard to feel bad for Britney Spears or Time Warner for losing sixteen bucks here or there. As far as crimes go, it isn't a terrible one, and most libraries loan CDs now anyway. And isn't it pretty corrupt to sell a compact disk for sixteen dollars in the first place, or charge 12 bucks to see a movie for that matter?
On the other hand, focusing on Britney Spears or Time Warner is stacking the deck a bit, isn't it? Here a smaller band called The Books, who release their own albums, talk about how illegal downloads affect them: "We feel the need to dispel any notions that we are financially sitting pretty because of the acclaim our music has enjoyed. It's true, we've released a couple of records and we're grateful to all of the writers who have taken the time to write about them, but unfortunately our record sales do not reflect this. Our work, although deeply satisfying to us, has left us both on the brink of financial collapse since we began, so we are asking you: Please, do not steal our music thinking that we can afford it. We barely get by, and aren't able to afford basic things like health insurance, let alone raising a family, etc."
It seems like illegal downloading could be terrible for music. I assume that many people will download anything they can- free always being a good price- and so the smaller labels will fold and the smaller bands will go broke. Not to mention the fact that the larger labels will find it more viable to release the next Jay-Z album and maybe turn some profit, but not to record the next band like Sonic Youth whose legal sales won't cover the recording costs.
And it's probably the same for movies. Eli Roth's film Hostel 2 flopped this summer, and he incurred the wrath of the blogosphere by blaming the film's failure on the fact that a copy of the film showed up on the net for free before it premiered in theatres. A number of bloggers called him a crybaby, but why shouldn't artists make money for their art? It beats most of the things that people make money doing.
One of the books I read today was Andrew Keen's polemic The Cult of the Amateur (for free in the library!) and he perhaps sheds a few too many tears for the major media companies. But one of the things that he discusses in the book is how, as record sales drop, it's becoming less and less likely that the labels will be willing or able to invest the time and money it would take to produce another Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Why spend thousands of dollars and a year to record something that most people will just steal?
One of the promises of the Internet is that it will make it easier for us to discover the next Bob Dylan. But my question is- isn't it just as likely that the online swap meet will force the next Bob Dylan to get another job?
In the interest of a discussion about culture and its relationship with modern values, I offer Polish sculptor, draftsman, and armchair anthropologist Stanislav Szukalski. As it says in his biography, "... plainly he was one of the greatest artists of this or any age, a relentless creative force that produced an incredible number of astonishing works during the course of a career that spanned seventy-five years. The story of his life is so interesting, and his list of achievements so extensive, that to give a proper account of them would take volumes."
... and you've probably never even heard of him. Where did he go wrong? His bio is here, and there are some hints in it, but mostly what it sounds like to me is, he pursued the transcendent, and was punished for his arrogance. Being batshit insane probably didn't help anything. Also, he's dead now, which is bound to put a crimp in your career.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
I had to look this up today because I was reading a book about the French extreme right under the July Monarchy and they apparently took to calling Marienne, the symbol of liberty and the republic, a "gueuse". I guess this is because they were mostly monarchists, but it still strikes me as a strange gesture. Courir la gueuse means to whore around.
How do we defend high culture?
The first thing we should consider is why so many people are averse to defending high culture. I think many of us are rightfully skeptical of the concept after decades of conservative editorials that begin with the line: "Our culture is under attack!" I can still remember the 1980s campaign to protect 'our culture' from Prince songs along with the Soviet threat. And for a few years the threat was "Satanism". In the last three years or so, our culture has supposedly been menaced by Islamic radicals (which is plausible), gay marriage (irrational), and Hispanics (racism in place of an argument). I think it's quite right to assume that the cultural sky is not really falling.
Moreover, some of us have been blamed by now. I've never heard a conservative blame cultural decline on a consumer culture whose implicit argument is that any art which requires a personal investment on the part of the viewer is a waste of time; instead blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of feminists, gay culture, the left, ''postmodernism'', or some other vaguely defined bugaboo based on the idea that if X came before Y, then X caused Y. I've joked that most of these books and articles can be boiled down to: Why is pop culture so lousy? Heidegger!
Occasionally, the left will take up the mantle of saving the culture from a general ''dumbing down''. Like conservatives, they worry that the decline of cultural institutions doesn't bode well for democracy. They might be right. Generally, liberals blame this sad state of affairs on ''the media'', or even better, ''the corporate media''. But if there's anything that blogs and personal websites have taught us it's that the public is perfectly able to produce tripe far worse than the worst of corporate culture. In fact, it's perfectly plausible that culture is in the doldrums simply because people have lost interest in it. We shouldn't rule out the possibility that the reverse of the liberal argument is true: that the mass media has been dumbed down by the public.
So why bother? Why worry so much when we find ourselves alone in art galleries, aside from a few impatient tourists in a mad dash to get through them? When the audience for classical music in any city is limited to 30 or so senior citizens? When movies are coming to resemble non-participatory video games, television is limited to insult comedies and vicious reality programs, and every passing car seems to be blaring musical paeans to murdering black men? When there's just so much that is mind-contracting or death affirming?
Because I'd rather. I was talking to Claire recently about how this relates to food. Many nights I'm fine with dining on Kraft Macaroni (like a good Canadian!) and Pepsi. It's comforting and it fills my belly and it tastes good. But the idea of eating like that every night is depressing. Some nights I need to go to a restaurant that makes complex dishes with flavors that I've never had before. I need to be stimulated. So it is with culture. I can live with pop; but a steady diet of pop seems like a bland and colorless life. Food and culture are equally important to my survival.
And it seems to me that the way to ''defend'' culture is not to wage yet another war on tripe. I don't think the world needs to hear a lecture on why I can't stand the 50 Cent brand or the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Bitching is easy; I do it all the time.
Again, I think we need enthusiasts. Enthusiasm is hard; it makes you look a bit foolish to other people. The cool pose is indifference; the ideal is to be jaded and unengaged. Enthusiasm seems ''geeky'', or ''queer'', or ''pretentious'', or even "crazy". The hardest part of teaching is staying enthusiastic in the face of teenagers who want to rain on your parade. I think it's part of why teachers become cynical.
But again we need to extol. Blake wrote that exuberance is beauty- it's also true that it makes us feel connected to the world around us, engaged, and even more alive. Sometimes it seems that we're only really alive on rare moments. But extolling is a defiant statement of who we are and what sort of world we want to live in. It's utopian in the face of status quo realism. It's hope in the face of the ever-present ambiance of fatalism. It's both a ''defense'' of our culture (by treating it as a living thing) and a radical gesture these days.
"Infatuated with herself, always classically draped, her magnificent hair her only coiffure, she was strange in her personality and her ways. She would appear at gatherings like a goddess descending from the clouds. At her request, her husband would lead her to a quiet corner of the room where she would allow people to admire her as if she were a shrine; absent amid the crowd, she would meet with glacial calm the indiscreet stares of her admirers. She almost never spoke to women. A few- a very few- men were favored with a smile, a word, or a greeting. Like a great singer who has just performed in an unfamiliar world, she would wait, patient and indifferent, for her hosts to pay their compliments. But as soon as the Emperor or the Empress approached her, her face would be transformed; her mouth until that moment disdainful, would part to show her admirable teeth, her eyes would shine betraying her triumph, her gratified vanity; she seemed to be saying to all: I am not here for you. I am of a different essence. I know only the sovereign and his court."
-General Fleury, on the legendary narcissist the Countess de Castiglione
I'm off to the library. But I thought I'd post one of my favorite Madonna videos before I left. Aside from being Madonna's gift back to the gay community that has been a source of creative inspiration through her entire career, Vogue was like a blast of aestheticism in an era of bad pop and worse clothes!
For today's words, we have to look at the past tense as well as the present, so they're shown in the format present/simple/perfect
erschrecken/erschreckte/hat erschreckt - frighten, shock, or scare.
Er erschreckt. (He is scary.)
erschrecken/erschrak/sein erschrocken - be shocked, be frightened.
Er erschreckt. (He is startled.)
Obviously, the examples are simplified to show how this could be confusing, and in general usage, there would be many other context clues in the sentence to show which erschrecken one wished to use. But it's interesting to me that there are words that are identical in one case and quite different words in other cases. Especially in the Perfect tense, where one auxilliary is the be-verb and the other is the have-verb.
Fortunately, the conjugations of these verbs are regular.
Monday, July 23, 2007
This German film from 1968 is probably as good an example as any of the ability that humans have to create art that easily transcends cultures through body language and simply by focusing on very basic human concerns. It's also a bit cheeky.
So, exhibit one will be the film Vanishing Point, an ideal example of pop. The film is extremely well-made, exciting, funny, and even subversive. It's also a perfect historical document. Several aspects of the film strike me as ''of the time'': the soundtrack, the strangely stereotypical ''homosexual characters'' (and why do the stereotypical homosexuals in 70s movies talk in a whisper anyway?), the shocking racial violence, the hippie secondary characters, and the overall message that American society no longer has room for free individuals. So I would definitely accept it as a primary source in a scholarly paper. But I don't see it as culture.
Madonna's video for Express Yourself, in contrast, is culture in the pop mode. The video is a witty send up of the film Metropolis in which the male proletariat figure is somehow liberated by the sexuality of the bored, wealthy woman, who arrives at the factory in male drag and dances provocatively. The rebellion of the beefcake worker basically involves taking the rich woman away from her capitalist husband, and apparently making her submit to him sexually. The video is instantly memorable- I'm guessing that anyone who has seen it remembers Madonna crawling on the floor to lap up milk like a cat from a saucer. It's also an aesthetically-perfect piece of pop.
So, why does the Madonna video strike me as culture while Vanishing Point doesn't? Is it ''high seriousness"? I don't think so. On one hand, Vanishing Point is a dumb car chase movie; but on the other hand, it deals with human freedom and self-destruction, and the increasing reach of the state. Meanwhile, Express Yourself is a dumb pop video that deals with freedom, sexual submission, class, and gender. And clearly the intent behind the two tells us little- Vanishing Point was intended to make money at drive-ins, and Express Yourself was intended to ''shift units''.
It seems to me that a central component of culture is that we return to it; it rewards repeated readings. And what this suggests to me is that it is is complex, or at least ambiguous.
Vanishing Point gets its point across in a relatively unreflective way- the cops are bad, men can no longer live freely without destroying themselves, thanks to those lousy cops. It's a thrilling movie, but there's no ambiguity to it; there's nothing to argue about later. We get the point. We can historicize it, but I don't think we can debate its message.
Express Yourself has a seemingly simple message- men should act with their hearts, or at least their libidos- but it becomes more complex when you reflect upon it. Is Madonna saying that sexual domination is the only 'revolution' possible for the poor? Is she saying that wealthy women fantasize about being dominated by working class men? This seems to be a recurring theme in her art (see also- if you must- the remake of Swept Away), and allegedly in her life. But isn't this sexual tourism? And isn't there something retrograde about the idea that women are liberated by sexual submission? And can someone from the master class every submit to the slave class?
But, of course, Madonna knows all of this, and she's having fun with it. She realizes that the age-old fantasy of the slave taking the master's wife is regressive, but she seems to be saying that this is exactly what gives it the sexual charge of a taboo. Or, at least, I think that's what she's saying.
So I think what makes the Madonna video culture is that it rewards repeated readings- it is intentionally ambiguous- in fact, playful ambiguity is one of its constituent components. It's also important to note that this is intentional- I don't suspect that Madonna and director Mary Lambert were simply confused about what they were trying to say. I think they had a self-awareness that the makers of Vanishing Point either lacked, or simply ignored.
Therefore, let's describe culture as human creations that mediate between civilization and existence/nature. Culture displays unity of form, originality, aesthetic sophistication, a high amount of elaboration, what Arnold describes as ''high seriousness'', and narrative complexity and ambiguity.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
We're back from Edmonton, Alberta. My impressions of the place?
Well, when you look at the layout of most places in North America, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that a race of humans has been colonized by a race of automobiles, each of them with very different goals and projects. When city landmarks are built close to each other, it feels like an offense against General Motors.
Edmonton is even more surreal because it's only intermittently populated. Huge swaths of prairies spread out like a golden crew cut. Most of the highways are much larger than they need to be, as if built for religious purposes instead of for transportation; the city was enriched by oil after all. The original 1947 drill that hit oil stands as a sort of monument, although presumably archaeologists will think it was pointing towards a god of some sort.
It's a gorgeous area. My favorite aspect was the sky in Alberta- it's huge and expansive, placid and cheerful. Because the city is so far north, daylight begins at 4:30 am and dusk is at 10:30 pm. People are more pleasant in places that receive a great deal of sun. I think I need the humidity as well. Claire thinks I'm crazy, but I miss sweat beading up on my forearms in the Virginia summertime.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Claire and I are rushing around today to get ready for this evening's flight ''out west'', as the Canadians call it. We're travelling to Alberta ("As seen in Brokeback Mountain!") for the weekend. Please feel free to post a lot here while we're gone and I'll respond to stuff when I get back. Hopefully, we'll also have lots of pictures of the really beautiful Alberta countryside.
See you soon!
Documentarian Errol Morris removes two words from the thousand a picture is supposed to be worth, in his NYT editorial blog. Apparently he's beginning a series of discussions about photography. He claims photographs can't be true or false, but only illustrate stories, and further, we have to know the story already, for the photo to be relevant to it.
I find his train of thought fascinating because, from the art perspective, I believe a visual work has FAILED if words are required to facilitate it (unless words are inherent to the work).
Thursday, July 19, 2007
This is one of the most memorable scenes from Sweet Movie, a film that is completely indescribable. I've seen it about four times and I also can't decide if it's any good. How exactly do you describe a film in which John Vernon, Dean Wormer from Animal House, plays a millionaire who celebrates his wedding night by urinating on his bride via his gold-plated member? Dusan Makavejev's films are generally pretty hard to describe, but this one pretty much takes the cake. Also, I figure this clip is sure to provoke some sort of response!
In recent years, an all-encompassing definition of culture has become standard in academia. Every non-instinctual human behavior that is specific to a certain civilization is labelled ''culture''. In one description, people wake up hungry by nature, but they decide to eat bacon and eggs because of their culture. This all-encompassing definition of culture has the benefit of appealing to a certain populist mindset which sees distinctions between ''high'' and ''low'' culture as ''elitist'', a term that strikes me as both insulting and meaningless.
Matthew Arnold famously described culture as ''the best that has been said and thought in the world.'' This is what we now call ''high'' culture, to distinguish it from ''popular culture'', which Arnold, and many nineteenth century moderns knew as ''barbarism''. While this definition gives rise to a certain arrogant exclusion, it has the benefit over the all-encompassing definition of avoiding a certain anarchy of forms. Perhaps we could call high culture that culture which rewards repeated readings, or simply that culture which shall endure.
Nietzsche, among others, believed that a nation had a ''culture'', in the broader sense, when there was a unity of styles among its artistic creations. Therefore, there was a French culture, but he believed there was no German culture; instead Germany was saddled with Cultural Philistines, who educated a sort of pseudo-cultural barbarism. In other words, he believed that democratic movements were poisonous for culture. In a society in which distinctions of taste are often taken as ''elitist'' and ''pretentious'', it's easy to see the appeal of these ideas.
Of course, the problem is that we can all think of art that is taken as ''schlock'' or ''kitsch'' or ''pop culture'' which strikes us as high culture. Certain genres, such as sci-fi or horror, are often excluded altogether from the realm of high culture out of hand. To give an example, Cronenberg's films The Fly and Videodrome are rarely treated as high culture, which they strike me personally as being. This might change with the forthcoming Fly opera!
Arnold distinguishes successful art as achieving what it sets out to do and displaying a certain level of ''high seriousness'', that is a fascination with good and evil, life and death, and the human condition. This brings us back to the idea of art as a mediated interaction with the realm of nature- an attempt to impose some order on the chaos of existence, or to write an ''instruction manual'' explaining what it means to exist. This concept of ''high seriousness'' also explains why high culture seems to endure. We can relate to Lear's struggle to deal with his own impending death because dying is central to the human condition.
I don't think we should take the term ''high seriousness'' as indicating that culture cannot be funny. Sections of Ulysses, for example, are side-splittingly funny; but Ulysses attempts to chronicle the entirety of the human condition, which puts us in the realm of high seriousness. Human existence is as tragic as it is funny.
Lastly, I think the term culture denotes a certain level of elaboration. It's not possible to distinguish bacon and eggs as culture, but anyone who has ever eaten a meal in France can attest that it is possible to imagine meals that attain the elevated level of culture. Conversely, it is possible to imagine relatively immediate works of art that are cultural. But the ideal tribal mask nevertheless displays unity of form, originality, high elaboration, and an interaction with nature.
One final question- is culture religious? I think that religious understandings of the world provide a complete framework for mediation between nature and civilization. Therefore, I would acknowledge that most cultures hitherto have been a translation of the sacred order to the social order, as Reiff puts it. I would also acknowledge that most cultures are defined by their religion- Hindu culture, Muslim culture, Judeo-Christian culture, etc. However, I also want to leave room for culture that is non-theistic, particularly existential culture (which has dominated in Europe), pagan cultures, and Buddhist culture. In other words, a civilization doesn't need to believe in Gods, but it helps.
Okay, so then a rough definition of culture would be human creations that mediate between civilization and existence/nature. Culture displays unity of form, originality, aesthetic sophistication, a high amount of elaboration, and what Arnold describes as ''high seriousness''.
Next installment: Why does culture seem to be at odds with consumerism? Where is culture to be found? What role can those of us who adore culture play in preserving or reviving it?
Note: This is a very rough draft. Additions or comments are, of course, welcome.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Papua New Guinea 29.5
United States 12.6
Source: 2007 World Drug Report, UN Office on Drugs and Crime
Ah yes, the double bind- if you want to move out of the working class into the professional class in America, you need to have a college education; but, if you're working class, you probably can't afford to get a college education. Apparently, with tuition rates skyrocketing (to pay for yet more worthless admins, no doubt) some working class college students are facing the question: do I eat or pay tuition? Lovely, eh? I guess state governments think it's more important to pay for surveillance cameras than higher education. I wonder if those hungry students enjoy sitting in overpriced classes, listening to their profs with full tuition tell them about their strong 'Marxist beliefs'? Or if they enjoy having the hereditary professional class lecture them on the virtues of a meritocracy? Ah well. I guess if God didn't want them to be part of the permanent underclass, He would have made sure they were born to richer parents.
Well, here's a position that I think everyone can agree upon in regards to the current fustercluck in Iraq: according to Inside Higher Ed, "The Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund is finalizing plans to rescue hundreds of Iraqi professors beginning in the coming months."
"IIE — which has a history of rescuing scholars that can be traced back to the Russian Revolution — is aiming to award two-year fellowships to 200 senior scholars, most of whom are professors, to teach and conduct research at institutions in Jordan and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa."
The scholars, many of whom currently have death threats against them (fanatics seemingly hate no one as much as they hate scholars), would be able to connect with their students in Iraq via videolink, while working with their students in the host countries. Now somebody should figure out how to get the students out of there as well. (Actually, I don't really understand why there isn't more support for bringing Iraqi refugees to the states, based upon the timeless principle: "You broke it, you bought it." I don't hear many people calling for that, which is weird since it's nearly impossible for them to be admitted to the US. Hell, let's start housing refugees in Crawford, Texas!)
Anyway, if you'd like to contribute to this rescue effort, give to the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund On-line through:
Under designation, please specify IIE Scholar Rescue Fund.
Gifts by check: Please make checks out to Institute of International Education/Scholar Rescue Fund:
Scholar Rescue Fund Institute of International Education Office of the Treasurer 809 United Nations PlazaNew York, NY 10017-3850
Gifts by credit card, stock, matching gifts, and planned gifts: For other ways to give to the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund, please contact:
Margot Steinberg, Chief Development Officer at (212) 984-5409 or firstname.lastname@example.org
I'm about halfway through Crime and Punishment and here are some notes:
The character of Raskolnikov has come into focus, probably more so than any other murderer that I can remember in fiction. I think the idea of there being two Raskolnikovs works well as an explanation because he is sharply divided against himself. On the one hand, you have the more ''scientific'' Raskolnikov who believes that morality is a mistake of the weak, and who makes a devastating speech about the right that the few overmen among us have to do as they wish. This would be the character who committed the murders in the first book.
On the other hand, there is the Raskolnikov who is irrational and unable to escape his crime. This is something that presumably Dostoevsky saw when he was jailed in Siberia- the criminal who gives himself away in spite of himself. Raskolnikov seems fairly determined to confess his crime, and it's interesting that he claims in places to believe in God, although this goes against what he claims for his guiding philosophy.
The critique of ''science'' extends to the discussion of socialism in the story and it's worth putting in perspective. There is a strong belief in the 19th century that all of the ''laws'' that guide human behavior will soon be understood and societies will be at last organized according to scientific principles. Political rule will go from the rule of people to the administration of things. Naturally, this will secure the most happiness for the most people.
Dostoevsky finds this prospect terrifying; not only for what it will do to the dignity of man in society, but also for what it suggests about free will. His narrator in Notes from the Underground is terrified by the prospect of reducing man to a player piano or barrel organ. Similarly, what makes the Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamavoz so insidious, I think, is that he sees the key to human happiness lying in the removal of ''the problem of freedom''. I think Christ is silent in front of this because He recognizes it as evil.
So it is in Crime and Punishment too. The advocates of socialism want to reduce all human behavior to a confluence of social forces. Raskolnikov (I think) asks about the adult who rapes a child; this is lurid, but it gets at a central criticism of ''scientific'' social projects- aren't there some pathologies that have no social roots, that are simply irrational? How do we allow for guilt if there is no individual pathology?
Raskolnikov is torn on this issue- between the perfectly rational materialist who kills an old woman with an axe for the good of society, and the irrational moralist who wants to be caught for committing a crime. It is a sardonic gift from the subconscious that his mother and sister show up at this point to badger him. I would suggest that their cloying goodness is one of the few mistakes that Dostoevsky makes- and he never seems to know what to do with purely good or purely evil characters- although it might well be the product of the main character's fevered imagination.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Okay, now here's my ill-informed take on all of that, working backwards chronologically.
1. The university is being really heavy-handed in suspending two tenured professors without pay for basically criticizing the university's decisions in a national forum. It's not exactly an assault on academic freedom, but it is troubling. You expect an open marketplace of ideas to be open to ideas that are critical. To add insult to injury, they have also removed posts from the campus server that take the side of the two professors! Queensland University of Technology is also pushing to scrap the entire Humanities department for not turning a profit! Anyway, you see how much respect these increasingly corporatized McUniversities have for their long-time professors or for open intellectual discussion.
2. That said, the professors come off as real bullies in all of this. In the first place, it seems just as over-the-top to take your gripe with a student to a national newspaper. Not to mention the fact that they tie the student to ''cultural relativism'' and ''postmodernism'' and all of the other things that are sure to get the conservative readers of The Australian frothing at the mouths. (I'm guessing none of them will ever question the ethical implications of foundationalism, will they?) Will The Australian make a habit of publicizing this sort of unprofessional abuse? "My Employees are Lazy" by McDonald's Manager Phil McCracken? And apparently the two profs have also gotten a disabilities advocacy group involved in their campaign against the student, whose project is still unfinished and therefore not available for public scrutiny. I mean, who acts this way?
2B. I do believe that a PhD student is an adult, and so should be able to defend their work in the public eye. Therefore, I don't think QUT should suspend the professors. Yet, it really is douche baggery to go to the national press with this sort of stuff.
3. And what are the chances that the student's committee didn't address any of these concerns? These professors weren't privy to those closed meetings, but it sounds to me as if they won't feel that their ''concerns have been addressed'' until the student is forced to change his title or abandon the project. Again, they strike me as a bit bullying.
4. As for the project itself... I think they've got a point there. It sounds tacky, to say the least. Maybe the student's heart is in the right place. But he has said that he filmed this project- in which he sent two mentally disabled men to interview drunks in a bar- to confront society about disability in the style of Borat. Did anyone else in the world watch Borat and think ''Hey, now there's a PhD project!"? Somehow a PhD project in the style of Borat sounds like the definition of 'Philistinism' to me. I don't believe that cultural relativism leads to cynicism any more than foundationalism does; however, many of the defenses of the project that people have made seem to amount to ''but the world is cruel!" So maybe the term Philistine is correct; however, just like the readers of The Australian, I haven't seen the thing. Maybe it's sublime.
There you have it. Nobody comes out smelling like a rose here.
What did I say? Now I'm part of the small town gossip network!
Okay, so here's this story in short form:
1. PhD student presents parts of his video in progress entitled "(Craig and William): Downunder Mystery Tour." The thesis itself is entitled "Laughing at the Disabled: Creating comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains."
2. Two profs in the audience are confronted and offended, but not entertained. They complain to the thesis advisors and the university ethics committee. They don't feel that anyone takes their concerns seriously.
3. So, they write an op-ed in The Australian about the corrupting influence of 'post-structuralism' and why they don't like this unfinished PhD thesis. They consider this to be taking the debate to the public.
4. The university decides that they are violating academic freedom and suspend them for six months without pay.
Got all that?
Monday, July 16, 2007
Simon Barnes talking sense in the London Times:
"None of us was reading for marks. It was an adventure, and the tutors and professors were largely sympathetic to this attitude: I attended seminars on Dylan and Burroughs, which were no help at all for the degree. What mattered was being thrilled by literature, by great ideas and words, words, words. Turning me loose among all these books was like locking up a lush in a brewery.
It was a time when you could discover a new poet, meet a lifelong friend, fall in love and completely alter your world view, all within a single term; and then do it all again next term. I never, for one minute gave thought to what I would do to earn my living. Nor was this view peculiar to the English Department.
"The error – the heresy – is to think that the entire purpose of education is to get you a better job: that the entire function of an individual life is to make as much money as possible. No one said to me, read Finnegans Wake and you’ll make a bloody fortune; that’s the whole point of reading the damn thing.
Amen! (Finnegans Wake is also very funny, incidentally)
They say you'd better listen to the voice of reason/ But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason
Senate Democrats want to use the 1967 Fairness Doctrine to force conservative talk radio to air more progressive talk shows. Okay. Here's why this strikes me as a lousy idea.
In the first place, the FCC is already abused as is. The only legitimate use of the FCC, as far as I can tell, is to prevent bands from transmitting over each other. Why we ended up with a government agency that regulates content, sort of a state censorship board, is beyond me. It should be nearly disbanded, not expanded. Using the FCC to force the views of any political party onto the commercial airwaves is a mistake.
Moreover, it is yet another abuse of the non-argument that political speech needs to be ''balanced''. Please. Healthy societies can distinguish between worthwhile and worthless arguments in political discussions. Asking them to surrender the ability to discriminate in order to be ''fair'' is also a mistake. We don't need the state regulating the content of radio programs or university courses for that matter.
And the question has to come up whether we see Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio personalities as ''news'' or ''entertainment''. I'm not willing to call them news sources; they seem more like comedians or entertainers to me. I'm not even sure that many of them are representatives of a particular political viewpoint. Limbaugh certainly is, but many of these talkers don't seem to have any viewpoint of their own, aside from a free-floating hatred of the 'liberals' that exist in their minds. So, if this is commercial entertainment, I can't see how using the power of the state to force radio stations to broadcast "another viewpoint" isn't just a terrible idea all around. Next, they will be forcing Comedy Central to follow The Daily Show with a right-wing comedy program. But, perhaps conservatives just aren't good at sketch comedy (which I'd be willing to bet they're not) and liberals just aren't very good at talk radio. Conversely, maybe progressive audiences just don't listen to the radio much. Or, like me, they pay for satelite radio.
Lastly, I believe that Democrats will only be successful when they win people over to the rightness of their opinions. And persausion just doesn't work when you use the power of the state to force them to listen to your opinions.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Took another long bike ride this weekend, north from town. The path follows the river, more or less, and is available on both sides of it, depending on whether you'd rather be right next to the train tracks, or right next to the highway. Right next to the river is not quite as much of an option as one might like. We went to the bustling metropolis of Deutschfeistritz, population 4090, which is about a 25 or 30 mile round trip, depending on the number of bike path closures, detours, and general losing the trail one does. We did spend a bit of that time lost in a detour. Not coincidentally, we learned a new word, Umleitung (detour...) to help us get around. The detour was only marked far enough to get us totally separated from the proper path and disoriented, and then they ran out of signs, or thought it was funny or something. It was OK, the town we were lost in was drenched in European charm, and not much drenched in the various smells of livestock. Plus, when you're (more or less) following the river, it's not that hard to get reoriented.
Trains run every day of the week here, passenger and freight trains. It's actually pretty exciting when you're riding your bike on a tiny bridge right over a speeding train, or directly next to a track where there intercity express going screaming by. But then that passes, and it goes back to being bucolic again in a few seconds.
In the second picture, those are northbound train tracks on the left; our bike path winding down to the right. How can you NOT want to explore this trail?? Not far after this spot, we passed an educational planting arrangement; a series of specimen trees and shrubs, all marked with tidy tags with the name on. They were even printed large enough and planted far enough apart that a bicyclist can catch most of whizzing by without stopping (which is why we don't have pictures of that). It even answered a question we've had all week, which is, what are those small, dark, incredibly tasty raspberries that started showing up at the market (Japanese wineberries, apparently. Not to be confused with the barberries, that are also apparently called Japanese Wineberries, especially if you're British.)
Nice house, right? This is pretty much the standard model for around here--boxy and very sturdy looking. The local preference for stucco type finishes on buildings is probably a southern/eastern influence. Most of the towns and villages are full of these, and sometimes they have 2 or more ornately carved wooden balconies on each side. This house is notable for NOT having any porches, balconies, or flower boxes. Hey, what's that thing on the top?
It's a nest with 4 white storks in it! We figure these are fledglings; they look pretty big, but they were loitering in that way that teenagers do, when they should get out of the house, but haven't. (Also their beaks and legs haven't turned red yet.) That sighting was one of the happy accidents; we were going totally the wrong way on the path when Greg spotted that up above the street. Thanks to Gram Florence for IDing the birds--we were on the phone with her while writing this, and we thought they were herons, and she said she knew there were white stork nests here. Sure enough, that's what they are.Not long after that, we saw an huge hawk or something soaring around up the mountain from where we were. Too high up for a good picture, but clearly another enormous bird. (Then it turned into one of those areas with an excess of animal crap smell, and we had to flee.)
Tom Wolfe must be borrowing from me! I've called the blogosphere that part of the media atmosphere with the least amount of oxygen, and the globalized equivalent of a small-town gossip network. Upon the anniversary of blogs, he has commented (In one of those insufferable 'get with the program you!' technology articles in the NY Times):
"One by one, Marshall McLuhan's wackiest-seeming predictions come true. Forty years ago, he said that modern communications technology would turn the young into tribal primitives who pay attention not to objective "news" reports but only to what the drums say, i.e., rumors.
And there you have blogs. The universe of blogs is a universe of rumors, and the tribe likes it that way."
Well, yes, I suppose McLuhan said it too...
Saturday, July 14, 2007
"Art reminds us of states of animal vigor; it's on the one hand a surplus and overflowing of flourishing corporeality into the world of images and wishes; on the other a rousing of the animal function through images and wishes of intensified life- a heightening of the feeling of life, a stimulus for it."
Let's see if I've got this posting thing down...
This is an iconic shot from Persona, one of my favorite films of all time. I don't know if a movie like this could be made any more; not for lack of money, but for lack of sincerity.
Of course, the Bastille was the most famous prison in Paris, in spite of the fact that it was mostly stormed to get the guns that were stored there. In fact, there were only a handful of prisoners to be freed. Nevertheless, the symbol remains as representative of monarchical state tyranny.
Prisons are a strange institution- they seem so rarely to lead to rehabilitation, but we still need some way to remove criminals from the society at large. Societies need to be able to say what it is that cannot be done within their territories. But these laws should also be constantly discussed, struggled with, and questioned to gain from the new wisdom of new generations.
Currently, there are 2,245,189 prisoners in the United States. That's the largest prison population in the world. China is second runner up with 1.5 million in jail. While the majority of prisoners in the US are there for property or violent offenses, a startling number are arrested for drug use, including, incredibly enough, marijuana use. According to an astounding 2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of state and Federal prisoners, approximately 12.7% of state prisoners and 12.4% of Federal prisoners were serving time for a marijuana-related offense. I defy anyone who has every smoked marijuana to argue that another person should be locked up for marijuana use alone. And yet, here we are.
As for the other prisoners in the population, we can argue about whether or not they should be in jail. Personally, I'm fine with locking up people who commit violent crimes, and uncomfortable with the tendency of some groups to blame all incarcerations on the ''prison industrial complex''. I can imagine a New Yorker cartoon with two prisoners talking: "What are you in for?" "Prison industrial complex." ''Yep, me too.''
And yet it's hard to take any of this seriously when a 17-year old honor student can spent two years in jail for having consensual oral sex with his 15 year old girlfriend, but a well-connected douche bag doesn't serve time for committing perjury and treason. And how can any sane person take seriously a modern 21st century judicial system that doesn't feel it needs habeas corpus any longer? Clearly the system is in need of repair.
But let's forget the debate about who should be in jail and who shouldn't, and agree that ideally prison should be a place for rehabilitation. Here are some groups that send books to prisoners, to help forward that rehabilitation:
BOOKS THROUGH BARS
4722 Baltimore Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19143215-727-8170
Sends progressive political and educational materials at no charge to state and federal prisoners in all states except MI. and OR. Donates books directly to county jail libraries but does not accept individual requests from county jail prisoners. Request books by topic. No catalog. Donations including artwork and stamps greatly appreciated.
BOOKS THROUGH BARS - NYC
C/o Bluestockings Bookstore
172 Allen StNew York, NY 10002
(212) 254-3697, ext. 322
Ships to prisoners nationwide. Specializes in political and history books. Also sends literary fiction and other educational books. Does not send religious literature. Donations of stamps and cash are appreciated. If you send a money order, please make it out to the groups fiscal sponsor, ABC No Rio.
BOOKS THRU BARS OF ITHACA
Second FloorAutumn Leaves Bookstore
115 The Commons
Ithaca, NY 14850
An all-volunteer operated, community-based "grassroots" organization that receives and process dozens of requests from incarcerated inmates predominantly from the most populated states in the Union: New York, Texas, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, and many other states throughout the country requesting educational books and reading materials from it library of donated books, "free of charge".
BOOKS TO PRISONERS
C/o Left Bank Books
92 Pike St., Box ASeattle, WA 98101
Free books to prisoners to all states except CA. Request by subject, no religious materials or legal materials. donations appreciated. Special Note - Does not ship to prisons who require all books sent to be new.
CLEVELAND BOOKS 2 PRISONERS
P.O. Box 602440
Cleveland, OH 44102
Free books to prisoners in Ohio only.
CHICAGO BOOKS TO WOMEN IN PRISON
C/o Beyond Media Education
7013 N. Glenwood Ave
Chicago, IL 60626
Free books to women prisoners in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi and Ohio.
DC PRISONS BOOK PROJECT
P.O. Box 5243 Hyattsville, MD 20782
Free books to prisoners nationwide.
GAINESVILLE BOOKS FOR PRISONERS
P.O. Box 12164
Gainesville, FL 32604
Covers prisoners nationwide. Accepts Requests by topic of interest only.
INSIDE BOOKS PROJECT
C/o 12th St. Books
827 West 12th Street
Austin, TX 78701
Sends free books and literature to prisoners in Texas only. Send 1 37 cent stamp for resource list and newsletter. Accepts artwork donations for their yearly prisoner art show.
INTERNATIONALIST PRISON BOOKS COLLECTIVE
405 w. franklin st.
chapel hill, NC 27516
New program that sends books to Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.
LOUISIANA BOOKS 2 PRISONERS
831 Elysian Fields #143
New Orleans, LA 70117
Ships free books to prisoners all over the US but focuses primarily on serving Inmates in Louisiana.
MIDWEST BOOKS TO PRISONERS
C/o Quimby's Bookstore
1573 North Milwaukee Ave. PMB. 460
Chicago, IL 60622
Free books to midwest prisoners.
MIDWEST PAGES TO PRISONERS PROJECT
C/o Boxcar Books
310A S. Washington St.
Bloomington, IN 47401812-339-8710
Sends free books to prisoners in all states except CA, TX, MI, and MA.
BOOKS TO OREGON PRISONERS
Portland, OR 97211
Free books to Oregon prisoners only.
PRISON BOOK PROGRAM
C/o United First Parish Church
1306 Hancock St. Suite 100
Quincy, MA 02169
617-423-3298 (NO collect calls)
Covers prisoners in all states but CA, MA, MD, MI, PA, or TX. Does not offer computer books, horror, romance, textbooks, true crime, or white supremacist materials. Publishes the National Prisoner Resource List free to prisoners nationwide on request.
PRISON BOOK PROJECT
C/o Food for Thought Books
P.O. Box 396 Amherst, MA 01004-0396
(413) 584-8975 ext. 208
Serves prisoners in New England states (Maine, VT, NH, MA, CT, RI) and Texas only. Request books by topics of interest, not title. No mailing list or catalogue. No hardback books.
PRISON LITERATURE PROJECT
C/o Bound Together Bookstore
1369 Haight St.
San Francisco, CA 94117
No Texas requests. Request types of books-not specific titles, Stamps or donations greatly appreciated.
THE PRISON LIBRARY PROJECT
915 West Foothill Blvd. Suite C
128 Claremont, CA 91711
Free books on self-help, personal and spiritual growth, wellness, and metaphysical books. No law books, technical, or GED. No catalogue. Free resource guide on request.
THE READERS CORNER
Prison Book Program
31 Montford Ave.
Asheville, NC 28801
Sends free books to prisoners in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee only.
URBANA - CHAMPAIGN BOOKS TO PRISONERS PROJECT
C/o Spineless Books
PO Box 515
Urbana, IL 61803
Sends all types of books to state and federal prisoners in Illinois. Has a large selection of novels, but tries to stock popular genres such as African American history and lit, as well as dictionaries, though they're hard to maintain.
WOMEN'S PRISON BOOK PROJECT
C/o Arise Bookstore
2441 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55405
Ships to all states except OR, MI, CO, and WV. Free books to women prisoners only. No county jail requests. Does not ship hardback books. Free resource guide for women and transgender prisoners. Encourages women and transgender prisoners to write articles for their newsletter. Write for more details.