Friday, October 29, 2010
This is a direct link to a Flickr image from a Brit sketcher who is (was?) fascinated by American fireplugs, as they've not got them in the UK, but most of the sketches are wider street views, with a little story of what was going on at the time, whether the person was traveling or local, etc. Many of the photos link to the artist's personal collection of images. Hard to go wrong.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
When you can do nothing else, write.
Writing is the profession of the unprofessional, the calling of those who couldn't hear God even if He retained any interest in them. Writing is what keeps the half-dead from being buried. Poetry is what lies beneath the wreckage of hope. Writing is the canary in the psychosexual coal mine. Writing is how the impotent throw a fuck into the rest of us. Writing is the demonic, barbaric yawp of the inarticulate, the angry scream of the animal that stupidly stepped into a leg trap that they figured wouldn't snap this time.
So, spare us your wit. Spare us your well-wrought verse, your clinical analyses of the ills of society, all rooted in a dream that things could be better, if only humans might recognize their true potential. You haven't lived long enough. May you have no hope before you get old. And then have hope for this reason- sometimes strangers surprise you. Sometimes women open their legs for you. Sometimes friends aren't embarassed by their friendship. Sometimes jokes are funny. Sometimes conversations are enough to live for. If you want utopia, that's where you'll find it. Not in politics or parties. Not in marriages or families. Not in anything enduring. We have no idea what we're doing. Nothing man-made is "sustainable". We do nothing higher than worship. And, if you must worship, then two minutes of human contact is surely worth a mass.
Sunday, October 03, 2010
Just watched this last night, I can't think of any better reason for the existence of the internet. This is such an excellent film, on so many levels, and were it not for the internet and this slippery beast of electronic media distribution, I would never have seen or heard of it. In Russian, from 1986. IMDB shows a Japanese release in 1991.
After you've watched it, and asked yourself where it's been all your life, and how people on Earth ever know who to squat to and how many times, next ask yourself if you know of a better way to get gems like these out and about.
Just so you are forewarned, the film is a bit longer than average, although it does have an intermission, complete with visual break, calming music, and glossary of alien terms. Since YouTube has it in sections, that won't be a huge problem, although they may have started a thing that makes the next section start playing automagically when one ends, so keep an eye on that. It's about 2h10m, all told.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Ross Douthat tweaks the noses of liberals, who he says enjoy the culture wars after all.
"Can we officially retire the notion that liberals don’t like the culture war? That it’s something foisted on them by knuckle-dragging conservatives? That they would prefer to only talk about Very Serious Economic Policies, and that they hate the way the right wing keeps dragging the conversation around to sex and God and all the rest of it?
With Christine O’Donnell, as with Sarah Palin before her, American liberals have been confronted with a politician who’s vulnerable to all sorts of possible attacks, and whose record and qualifications and positions provide plenty of fodder for either a high-minded, issues-based critique, or a more no-holds-barred assault on her honesty and integrity. And what do liberals want to talk about? Why, her decade-old comments on masturbation, of course!"
The liberal response would be that the culture wars shouldn’t matter in theory; however, since conservatives hope to legislate morality, one is pressed into active service. Gossiping about Christine O’Donnell’s nutty views on masturbation is hence a defense of liberty, as she’d likely make it illegal if she could- bad news for the justice system since most of the public are repeat offenders.
I’ve never quite sympathized with those on the left who believe that cultural struggles are a “distraction” from the economic issues that “really matter”. Unlike the Marxists, I don’t understand culture as “epiphenomena”, deriving only from the material forces that shape our lives and history. Certainly, our material situation affects the course of our life, yet, so does the culture in which we find ourselves. Culture provides us a rough guide to how to live a meaningful life, and most of us will find that, in spite of our free will, numerous existential potentialities strike us either as realistic or off-limits due more to culture than our intrinsic nature.
The real problem with the culture war, then, is that the stakes are so low.
Gun control? Liberals have mostly abandoned that impossible dream. Abortion laws? Nobody expects Roe V Wade to be overturned, nor should they. Controversial art? The art scene is the province of the super wealthy, effectively removing it from public discussion. Radical professors? Universities are already fazing out tenure, making academics, already some of the most boring people on earth, into timid functionaries. Gay rights? We’re one step away from enshrining them, ending the debate, and finally reducing the fluid vagaries of human sexuality to two boxes on a census form- the monosexuals won.
What’s left? Arguing about whether mall greeters should be made to say “Merry Christmas” or an Islamic center in New York shouldn’t move elsewhere in the interest of sensitivity. There’s same sex marriage, but again the question seems to be whether or not society as a whole will accept one subset of adult middle class couples. Between the right’s hurt feelings about elite condescension and the left’s yearning for widespread tolerance and celebration of diversity, one would think Americans are united in that insipid bourgeois dream of being liked by people that one doesn’t know. To dream the uninteresting dream…
None of these things is a debate about the terms of existence as much as the sorts of trivialities insecure suburbanites worry about. People say that the battles of the culture wars are symbolic of “larger struggles”, and really the largest struggle here is the fight against the collapse of cultural meaning as the last embers of a once dynamic society sizzle out and the inky night triumphs. It’s hard not to feel that there is no space of radical possibility- political or divine- remaining. Another world is no longer possible.
I mean think about it. In terms of love, Americans went from a radical discussion of potential relationships- saving patriarchy or doing away with it, whether open marriages or monogamous ones are more in keeping with our nature, whether divorce is liberating or purely destructive, if free love is even possible- to a tacit siding with conventionality and an argument about whether gays can call their square relationships “marriage” without hurting anyone’s feelings. In terms of faith, we went from an important discussion about the role of the divine within modernity- do we lose some aspect of our humanity within secularism, does a godless universe remove the possibility of free will, is a wealthy nation with no space for spirituality ultimately empty, and has God lost interest in us- to a debate about how not to hurt the feelings of knee-jerk Christians without hurting the feelings of knee-jerk atheists. In terms of labor, we now discuss whether avoiding Wal-Mart is solidarity or snobbery. As for the environment, we choose to shop at Green Incorporated. Feminism, once radical, now does little more than maintain the abortion status quo. Racial debates now involve “visibility” on television shows. It’s not that these things don’t matter. But none of this poses any questions how you, or I, live our lives. All of these debates are about whether our own particular version of the status quo will be flattered or not. It’s hard to be passionate about matters of decorum.
The mythos about the sixties culture wars is that they resulted inevitably from the conformist fifties culture, and yet it’s hard to see Eisenhower’s America as any more conformist than Obama’s. It’s hard to imagine that the generation that embraced television was somehow more stultified or less inspired than that which embraced the Internet. As then, the truly important questions are inappropriate for mixed company. To each his own “lifestyle”.
The problem with the culture wars is that they distract from the culture wars we could be having.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Emmanuelle is famous for being a sexually graphic (but not pornographic) film released by a major studio with an X rating and subsequently making a lot of money. It’s not a masterpiece in any sense, although it’s certainly better than most films of this sort; and it is, in many ways, a product of its time (the mid 70s). There’s also a debate about whether it’s a ‘feminist’ sex film. I think it is, but not in any way we would be quick to recognize, which I think says more about the feminist movement than about the film.
Based on the novel by Emmanuelle Arsan, the movie tells the story of a French diplomat’s wife, played by Sylvia Kristel, who moves to Bangkok with her husband and settles into the life of the consular community. This life apparently involves great boredom and diplomatic wives cheating on their husbands. This is not an issue for Emmanuelle, however, because her husband encourages her to take lovers; he’s not jealous but is French.
The film, then, is a story of innocence coming into a world of experience and into her own as a sexual woman. The film has a dream-like and languid tone, and seemingly everyone she encounters is more open sexually than Emmanuelle, from Marie-Ange a young girl who masturbates in front of her to Bee, the bisexual archaeologist who seduces and leaves her, from her husband who encourages her to have sex with others to Mario, an older European decadent who introduces her to opium, underground boxing matches and being sodomized before a crowd. His philosophy holds that all of the limits of bourgeois morality must be transgressed and he becomes sort of a tutor to Emmanuelle. In the end, however, she seems to have graduated and no longer needs anyone in particular to fulfill her sexual desires. Sitting before a mirror in the last shot, she has passed from innocence to experience. Or it was all a dream.
Of course, none of this is particularly realistic or even always coherent. Emmanuelle is clearly a fantasy about female sexuality, and yet it’s strange to think of how rare films like this- an erotic film about a woman coming into her own as a sexually liberated adult- have become. It really is a product of its time. Current mainstream cinema generally portrays adult women as having few or no sexual desires of their own, while pornography is much more often about female degradation than liberation. The sort of argument the film makes is not often heard anymore, especially not in cinema.
That argument: that in order for a woman to be sexually liberated and self-actualized she must have several sexual partners, and so monogamy is anathema to female liberation- well, let’s just say it’s still shocking. Is it feminist? I think it is a valid feminist argument in the sense that it’s a radical statement about female liberation and self-actualization. It is not feminist in the sense that it is not an argument that has been widely embraced by the feminist movement. Some feminist thinkers have said as much, but the feminist movement has tended far more generally towards renegotiating the terms of monogamy than arguing for its abolition. Emmanuelle has more often been read, by feminists, as a male fantasy (written by a woman), since women naturally desire monogamy. Mais, bien sûr!
I think maybe it’s most interesting to see Emmanuelle as a path not taken. Its case is totally valid, in my opinion, but it’s also not one that many people- feminist or not- are willing to side with. At least, not outside of fantasy.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Okay, let’s clear this up: Jaws (1975) was a big budget major studio version of a Roger Corman Beast at the Beach B-Movie; it made a lot of money, so in response, Corman produced Piranha (1978), a low-budget Jaws rip-off that was more entertaining than it ever deserved to be thanks to director Joe Dante; and now, we have a big-budget major studio remake of Piranha that will, inevitably, be ripped off by Roger Corman for the Sci-Fi network. It’s the cinematic cycle of life my friends.
The tag line for this movie should be the Pieces classic: “It’s exactly what you think it is.” The scenario is dumb beyond belief- Mesozoic era piranha that survived under the earth in a subterranean lake surviving through cannibalism- yes- for millions of years. How did they manage that? I have no idea? Why do various characters in the movie disappear for no apparent reason? No idea there either. How do our heroes get dragged underwater through rocky shoals via powerboat without dying slightly? No clue.
But you go to see these films for gore and nudity, and the film delivers a ton of both. The third-act massacre is one of the bloodiest things I’ve seen outside of war films. The director has compared it to Girls Gone Wild meets Saving Private Ryan, and that’s about accurate. Dozens of idiotic partying half-naked teenagers go from drunken to eaten in about twenty minutes. Eli Roth shows up and plays a douchebag- really most of the kids in these movies are like the “bad guy” in wrestling- they show up, annoy the shit out of the audience, and get triumphantly massacred. It’s a formula that works.
And, goodness, do they get massacred! The levels of nudity and gore in the film make me wonder if the MPAA was given blow before rating it. I can’t tell you if it’s better in 3-D. I hate 3-D and saw it in 2-D because this was the format playing at our drive-in. This is the sort of movie you should see at a drive-in.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Friday, July 09, 2010
Further to that… Dan Savage is promoting that book Love at Dawn pretty hard and, in the process, pushing back against certain attitudes that I’ve actually expressed here. So, in the interest of fairness…
"The point of Sex At Dawn—and my point in drawing your attention to it—isn't that monogamy is unnatural and therefore no one should attempt it and that people have license to break the monogamous commitments they made to their partners. And for the record: I'm happy to acknowledge that there are lots of good reasons to be monogamous or very nearly monogamous.
What the authors of Sex At Dawn believe—what they prove—is that we are a naturally non-monogamous species, despite what we've been told for millennia by preachers and for centuries by scientists, and that is why so many people have such a hard time being and remaining monogamous. I'm not saying that everyone everywhere has to be non-monogamous; the authors of Sex At Dawn don't make that argument either. (Lots of monogamists, however, run around insisting that everyone everywhere should be monogamous—and the monogamists get a pass because, hey, they mean so well and wouldn't it be nice if everyone were?)"So, okay, I see what they're getting at. It seems to me that, rather than criticizing monogamy as such, Savage and the authors are criticizing the bad reasons that people choose monogamy, or even just the bad ways that they look at monogamy and the lousy expectations they put on themselves as a result. And, okay, I think he’s right on this.
I’ve now read a number of message board comments about this book and it’s pretty clear that we’re in the minority at GSM because we’re all pretty level-headed, open-minded, and somewhat liberal about sex and love, regardless of our relationship status. Many people, evidentially, are not. They believe that love and sex are the same thing, so that, if you are in a committed relationship, it will be monogamous- not only in practice, but even in thought. You simply won’t consider fucking the girl at the coffee shop or the fellow at work. And, if you do, it’s a sign that either something is wrong with you: you’re a “dog”, a “slut”, you don’t respect or love your partner, etc; or it’s a sign that something is wrong with your relationship. Some people have even suggested that, if you’re flirting with or thinking about someone else, “your relationship is already over”.
I think their point is that, if you’re thinking about these things, it probably means you’re Homo sapiens: that members of our species desire sexual novelty, difference, and multiple partners by nature, even if it’s not right for our lifestyle. And so we should be less hard on ourselves for exhibiting the traits of our species. We can stay monogamous without feeling guilt about the fact that monogamy does not always fulfill our needs. I think they’re probably right.
For me, I often felt like I was wearing clothes that didn’t fit me in terms of relationships. It wasn’t that I dislike monogamy; it was more the expectation from males my age that I should be more hung up on my partner’s monogamy than I actually was. I remember having a discussion with a girlfriend, who was struggling with her desire for sex with others, and feeling, inside, completely unthreatened by that, but still socially restricted from saying, “Oh, go ahead. I don’t care” because that might seem ‘self-loathing’, ‘disrespectful’, or like I didn’t love her. And yet, I didn’t care. But I worried that something was “wrong” with me for not caring.
I eventually “came out” about not being jealous or even terribly concerned about what my wife does when she’s not home. But, that was only after we had mused about non-monogamy for six years, and indeed, I still worried that I might sound perverse or masochistic or lacking in self-esteem. It’s really quite the opposite- I don’t get jealous because I have a very high opinion of our relationship and of myself as a partner. I don’t see anyone else threatening that. I’m her man.
And, indeed, since she’s had another partner, jealousy hasn’t reared its ugly head between us at all. Actually, it was considerably easier than I’d expected. She feels closer to me because of my faith in her; and I feel just as secure in the relationship as before, and even a bit more so. And our sex life is the best it’s ever been, perhaps partly because the fact that I’m not the only one having sex with her has stirred her libido and my awareness of her sexual prowess. So far, it’s been a very positive experience and a good decision.
Now I don’t think this would be right for everyone, or even that it will necessarily always be right for us. However, having heard for years that, absolutely, it would not be right for any married couple, I do understand the urge to push back against the "monogamy or splitsville" crowd.
Recently, I’ve been reading a number of articles by anti-abortion advocates discussing the “racial genocide” of legalized abortion. I think the argument is that, because abortion rates are higher in the black community, advocates of legal abortion are promoting the genocide of that community. It’s a problematic argument, for both pro-lifers and pro-choicers, for reasons that would seem obvious, but apparently aren’t.
I don’t know if it’s ‘epistemic closure’, but I suspect you have to be a conservative for the argument to resonate; or, more accurately, be anti-liberal, since the underlying message seems to be that liberals are glaringly hypocritical: they’re allegedly concerned about the black community, while accepting higher abortion rates in that community.
But I’m not entirely sure why pro-lifers are making this case, when the data they’ve highlighted suggests instead that both sides of the ‘debate’ are looking at the wrong issue by focusing on the laws. A few points stand out: 1. the black community has a fairly high level of Christian evangelical religiosity; 2. it has a higher poverty rate than the general population; and 3. it has a higher abortion rate than the general population. So it seems a logical inference that abortion is a social issue; that a woman who has very little means to raise a child might be more likely to have an abortion than one with means. This seems logical to the point of being common sense, and suggests that pro-lifers and pro-choicers are mistaken in focusing on the laws.
Curious about this, I looked up the statistics at the CDC and they claim about 73% of women who have abortions are living below the poverty level (earning $9,570 or less per year). According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, 75% of women who have abortion cite lack of money to raise a child as one of their reasons for having an abortion. So, at the very least, class is an issue here. But, of course, it's not part of the discussion.
The problem I have with the abortion “debate” is that both sides are perfectly right, but discussing two completely different topics. Pro-lifers are right that abortion is tragic and ethically abhorrent. If you believe in a soul, it’s an obvious tragedy; even if you don’t, it is basic biological fact that every individual of our species is unique and unrepeatable. Therefore, deciding that one individual may not exist is clearly fraught with ethical problems that pro-choice people need to acknowledge more openly.
Conversely, you need only be mildly libertarian to think that the state shouldn’t be allowed to intrude into people’s private reproductive decisions. Shouldn’t people who champion individual liberties over state intrusion see Roe V Wade as a victory? More importantly, every study I’ve read on the topic says that abortion rates did not greatly increase after Roe V Wade, and that making abortion illegal does not greatly reduce the number of abortions. Abortions, or induced miscarriages, are very easy procedures to do. Much like setting a broken bone, you wouldn’t want to do it yourself, but if you had to, you probably could. There is a very long and sad history of abortion, induced miscarriage, ‘exposure’, and infanticide; typically correlating to times of material need. So it’s not inconceivable that making abortion illegal would do little to change the overall rate of abortion.
In other words, if you’re pro-life, and focused on the legal issue over the social issue, it seems to me that you’re not addressing abortion as such; just the social imprimatur: you’d rather that society not approve of abortions and they be clandestine- but not necessarily that there actually be less of them.
If you’re simply opposed to abortions as such, you need to focus on the social question: fight for a higher minimum wage, provide free day care and pre-natal care, improve living conditions for lower-class women, promote sex-ed for poor teens, and even think about establishing scholarships for the children born to low-income women who made what you see as the right choice. You need to add incentives to birthing and childrearing, because that’s what will reduce the number of abortions. Otherwise, you’re only addressing the visibility of abortion.
As for pro-choice people, if you’re focused on the legal issue and access, and ignoring the social issue, then you’re really only concerned with the ‘choices’ of one class. There is a difference between choices and options; a lower-income woman facing an unplanned pregnancy has options, but not actual choices. Until there is a much higher base level of income and living standards across society, the poor will lack real choices. And, in general, I think the left needs to focus almost entirely on the social question and drop the neo-liberal idea that doing so is impossible or “anti-capitalist”, when in fact it’s just the opposite.
Finally, here’s something fascinating: if the right addressed abortion as a social issue, they’d find common cause with the left. It is possible then to imagine a time in which abortion was legal, but almost nobody had them.
Saturday, July 03, 2010
In a lame attempt to spark discussion, I'm linking to this Q&A with the authors of Love at Dawn, which argues that long-term sexual monogamy is not the natural state for human beings:
Biologists distinguish sexual monogamy from social monogamy. As DNA testing has grown cheaper in recent years, we’ve learned that most species formerly classified as “monogamous” (primarily birds) are socially monogamous, but not sexually so. In other words, they form pairs that cooperatively care for that season’s brood of young, but the male may well not be the biological father. Applied to humans, we argue that a more flexible approach to sexual fidelity can increase marital stability and thus lead to greater social and family stability.
This passage I find a bit irritating, for reasons I can't explain:
Another problem is that most people in the West marry because they’re “in love,” which is a temporary, blissfully delusional state we should enjoy, but not expect to last forever. As the German poet, Goethe put it, “Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing. A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.”Okay, well, I'll try to explain. It annoys me when people make the distinction between the initial thrill of falling in love and the day-to-day work of a romantic relationship and suggest the two are diametrically opposed. While that initial rush certainly fades, I find that it comes back in waves that are, let's be honest, much more manageable than the initial swooning and dizziness. Birthdays, weekends, anniversaries, other people's weddings: quite often I am blissfully and delusionally in love. The rest of the time, we're best friends who love each other deeply and like to screw. But I don't get where people get this idea that "love" disappears once you start doing laundry together.
Thursday, July 01, 2010
Recently, a hue and cry was raised about the bizarre reality that the content of US textbooks is ostensibly decided by a small board in Texas, who as it happens, are Christian fundamentalists. Hence, the Deist Thomas Jefferson is no longer considered a father of the American nation. Personally, I understand the distress; but as a historian-in-training, I tend to look at the controversy differently.
First off, history is quite often controversial. There are controversies about what facts are true, what interpretations of those facts are valid, and what events should be emphasized. History often clashes with tradition, its close relative. An Indian colleague recently commented that an advantage of studying Mughal history in America is that you needn’t fear writing something that leads angry mobs of Hindu nationalists to drag you out into the street. As with individual psychology, nations tend to know who they are by who they’ve been in the past. The need to whitewash is as pressing in terms of the nation, but as with individuals, the repressed always resurfaces; whether or not the second time is farce. We might not repeat the mistakes of the past, but we often approximate them.
Nevertheless, the second point is that, as an aspiring historian, I see historical study as worthwhile in and of itself. Studying the human past gives us a greater understanding of what it means to be human, a way of comparing the different paths taken by societies, and a neutral space to explore our own beliefs, values and ideas. It also provides a sense of the historical and civilizational contexts within which we find ourselves. It expands the ground of our being. It is good for you.
The problem is that straight back to the nineteenth century German schooling model discussions of curriculum have seldom treated history as an end unto itself. And here is the rest of it.Instead, history has usually been instrumentalized as a means to some other end. Instead of studying history to gain historical sense, students are to study history because it provides “critical thinking skills”, or it inculcates certain “values”. Instead of developing a holistic and coherent picture of the historical context of one’s self and society, the goal is to make use of “lessons” from history to demonstrate how to be a good citizen, or an advocate for social justice, or a tolerant individual.
Universities make the same mistake. Read a course catalog and you’ll find that most universities justify their mandatory history courses by the appeal to “skills” instead of appealing to a vision of a good life. The result is an unjustifiable incoherence to their course offerings, and no explanation about why students should study history if they could gain “critical thinking skills” elsewhere. As a student once asked: “Why should I read this dialogue by Plato? It’s not like I’m not going to be a Greek historian.”
High School education, meanwhile, seems to have chosen “values” over a deeper and broadened selfhood. If we hope to offer advertisements for a particular value, in this case Christian faith, then Jefferson should go; if the goal is to gain a richer understanding of the American story and enrich one’s experience as an American, it’s both incomprehensible and abhorrent that this education would exclude the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton in the Federalist Papers.
So, this textbook controversy, while upsetting, is informed by a larger misguided belief that history is only worthwhile as a means to another end. When the Texas mandarins decided to remove Oscar Romero, it was entirely likely that Romero was there in the first place in order to inculcate a belief in social justice and removed to make more room to inculcate Christian and capitalist beliefs. In other words, if you see history as a means to an end, its use as propaganda is to be expected; the question is more about which propagandist will prevail.
Propagandists see all culture as a means to an end, and all knowledge as an instrument of power. Thus, they tend to write off scholars as “so-called experts”, pronouncing the word “expert” as if it was something they stepped in while walking through a public park. Let’s not forget that certain segments of the radical left spent a good part of the early 90s trying to remove the “right wing propaganda about dead white males” from university courses. Nevertheless, if all you see in Shakespeare is “White, Western male propaganda”, or if all you see in Jefferson is “godlessness” you are, to put it bluntly, a goddamned fool.
The argument from the Texas mandarins and the “Western Civ has got to go!” crowd is the same: all scholarship is propaganda, so why not have our propaganda? This is the Foucaultian argument that knowledge doesn’t exist outside of power taken to its logical conclusion. The corollary is that intellectual self-determination is impossible, so selfhood also can’t exist outside of power. When people make this argument, I generally wonder if they’re describing the state of things as existing or as they’d like it to be. And at some point, I think it’s possible to be troubled by all the havoc that “experts” have caused in bureaucratic societies over the last two centuries, while still recognizing that their critics are often really attacking the possibility of a neutral intellectual space outside of power. It’s often a short stride from kicking a scholar to goose stepping.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Here were have an op/ed piece discussing re-versioning historical accounts to suit current social / political stances. It sounds kind of dirty to say it, but if you keep in mind that whatever version you have -- any version at all -- was written to suit a specific social / political stance, it's less dodgy and more like plain old disappointing. Perhaps what I found most interesting about this short article is that the author effectively compares the current educational agendas in Russia and Texas. Someone should probably feel at least a little bit weird about that.
Friday, June 25, 2010
I think I see how we can make the world a better place! Just go read this, and afterward, think about what tactile sensation translates into giving a shit about stuff that matters. Maybe everyone needs to spend some time every day touching unbearably fragile things, ephemeral things, gossamer things. Maybe everyone needs to spend a few seconds savoring something precious. Physically, tangibly precious.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
... of the generosity of the human spirit, there is fullbooks.com, a jumble of what the name implies. Some authors and titles you've heard of, some strangers. Some fictions, some non. Real grab bag.
And also a little rodent living in a tennis ball someone stuck in a tree for it.What's not to like?
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Something just occurred to me: why isn't there a DVD rental-by-mail service that rents all the foreign movies that come out? Someone will clean up doing that.
I know the mail order DVD rental places will rent foreign movies, but only a few of them. There is a massive trade imbalance with movies: almost every American film made plays around the world, but only a few foreign movies ever make it to North America. Here in Canada, it's even worse- we get all of the American films, but most Canadian films never play in Canada, in spite of the fact that we fund them through taxes! It goes without saying that most Canadian films never make it to America and the ones that do are disguised as American films (Juno, A History of Violence, etc.)
A number of countries have thriving film industries that barely export anything. I was thinking about this while reading this Salon article about a French film from 2008 that is now playing in NYC and online. It's a very positive review and it occurs to me that there are a ton of French movies like this made every year. If you live in North America, however, there are only two ways to see them: 1. Watch the small fraction of French films that get released in North America, or 2. Download them from a file-sharing site. And it's the same with Japanese films, German films, Spanish movies, etc. etc. You have to get a multi-region player and find an ethnic importer store.
So, it seems to me that, were there a distributor who rented the movies through the mail in the North American region format, they'd corner an untapped market and make a lot of money. Am I right?
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
And, also, I wrote this thing over yonder about sex scandals and why people might not care about them. So, feel free to read that too.
I guess I could cross-post the Ordinary Gentlemen stuff here too. I do feel a bit like I'm being unfaithful to GSM.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Friday, June 11, 2010
When you care enough to send the very best (from your anus to the surgically-attached mouth of another)
I know this will sound cynical, and I don't necessarily mean it that way. But I do find it interesting that we have already had this oil spill before. (For comparison, here's the current spill.) The quick solution doesn't seem to have many fans outside Russia, and the solution they went with on the Ixtoc I (the first Gulf of Mexio spill in '79) was to drill a relief well... that's not going to be a quick fix. What I'm wondering about is how quickly we will all lose interest in this horror. I actually have the sense that it is already kind of waning. Even shock photos of oily pelicans aren't really getting much more than a weak "awwww, that's a damn shame" from most people at this point. The Persian Gulf "spill" during the Iraq war, was several times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, and never really subject to any clean up efforts. There's still oil blobbing up all over the place there 20 years later. Yet, mention it in conversation, and you're just as likely to get "oh yeah, that's right, that DID happen!" as anything else.
Do I have a solution? No. Nor am I here railing about how someone should do something. Mostly I'm mourning what appears to be a crapload of apathy. People forget so easily what happens, and I think that really contributes to these things repeating. Because when it comes time to set limits, regulations, safety measures, and so on, no one is truly shaken to the core by the horror of the things we do. We have become jaded and disaffected about our Sodom & Gomorrah scenery.
Tuesday, June 01, 2010
How in the world are they going to remove all that oil from the Gulf of Mexico? Paul Stamets suggests mycoremediation: using mushrooms to consume the spill. He's made it work surprisingly well on land- I'm not sure how it would work at sea. But it's worth a shot along with every other idea they can think of, right?
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Monday, May 24, 2010
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Saturday, May 15, 2010
One of the minor irritants about being married is that, at one time, people assumed your relationship was unique and individual, but now that you've tied the knot, they assume you're married just like they are. Whenever I'm at married people parties, I find myself nodding and smiling along with gags about fighting over the remote control or the taking out the garbage for the wife, or whatever, and having no idea what the hell we're all talking about. I remember a memorable party with some of my wife's lady friends joking about how they'd 'keep an eye on her' and 'make sure she's good' while I was overseas for seven months. I bit my tongue not to say, "Aw, heck, just let her get laid for crying out loud".
I'd imagine people who actually are in "open marriages" must bite their tongues a lot (well, or someone's tongue anyway). The point of my anecdote is that everyone's married differently and if that sort of thing works for some people, who can say they're wrong? I get tired of hearing people say that those sorts of relationships are "impossible" because "everyone's jealous". I'm not. I was when I was about 23 years old and, admittedly, dating a girl who didn't much like me (and was a bit of a twat anyway), which tends to make one insecure. But, after we broke up, I decided that being jealous is sort of a worthless emotion- your partner eventually gets sick of it and dumps you and then you feel like a shitheel; if it wasn't going to work out, that would happen anyway, but you'd not feel like a shitheel. So I stopped. And it's much more relaxing just to focus on your own life and not worry about what your partner is doing. Jealousy is tiring.
Anyway, this is a book about how people manage to have open marriages without problems. It was pretty fascinating reading. One of the funniest bits of advice is that you need to have a daily planner if your marriage is open. I'd imagine you would! Also, make sure to prioritize the needs of your 'primary partner', so they don't feel threatened. Probably true in monogamous marriages too. And don't leave pubic hairs lying about. That, I'd imagine, becomes a whole other issue in open marriages. And how not to lose your temper when your wife's lover drinks the last of the milk?
Anyway, it sounds like every open marriage is different as well- some people have regular lovers or girl/boyfriends; others have the occasional threesome (according to Dan Savage, this is a normal part of gay male relationships); some just cruise; and some are in multiperson marriages. What I liked about the book was that it was not overly focused on polyamorous love relationships, like a lot of websites seem to be. That seems way too tiring keeping up two relationships. Don't some people just pop off for the occasional fling with a flight attendant? Actually, a lot do that, in what the book calls "non-consensual non-monogamous relationships", or dogging around. They're against cheating because it's unethical, which I suppose makes sense- it's really the lying that sucks with cheating, isn't it?
So I like that the emphasis is on how married people 'play' without causing strife. I like that they place an emphasis on reclaiming sluttery and the tone is fairly therapeutic. I can't really remember the last time I heard anyone use the term 'slut' as an epithet, but I'm sure some people do and it's worth turning the word into a term of endearment. As for open marriages, if it works for Bob and Carol and their 'play partners', more power to them all. I'd certainly much rather live near a nice married couple and their live-in lover than some fundamentalist dickweed cheating on his wife with a rent boy. I've certainly known open couples who made it work. For me, though, I have enough trouble keeping all of my appointments straight as it is.
Saturday, May 01, 2010
Friday, April 16, 2010
U.S. Patent # 3,285,228 is the AG7 anti-gravity pen designed by Paul Fisher, who founded the Fisher Space Pen Company. Not surprisingly, the AG7 is the same space pen.
An old urban legend holds that NASA spent a million dollars developing a pen that could be taken into space and would still function in zero gravity, only to find out that the Russians thought to use a pencil. Not true. Actually, NASA still uses pencils, or at least grease pencils. Regular pencils have the problem of being a bit too flammable.
Paul Fisher set out to develop a pen that could be sent up in space in the 60s. He had already made a name for himself by developing a universal refill cartridge- before this, there were several different types of refills that were not interchangeable between different types of pens, but his could be used with most of them.
He then set to work developing the space pen, had it patented by 1965 and gave it to NASA for testing. They first used the pen on the Apollo 7 mission in 1968. The space pen can write upside down, under water, and in extreme temperatures.
The pen uses a thixotropic ink: meaning the ink is a gel that is viscous until somehow shaken or stressed, as by the roller ball, in which case it liquefies. Fisher developed a thixotropic ink earlier for the Fisher universal ink cartridge. This allows the ink to flow only when needed.
Furthermore, the cartridge is pressurized by nitrogen, which is why it doesn't need gravity to work.
Fisher died in 2002, but they still make the pens. The factory store is located in Boulder City, Nevada.
Saturday, April 10, 2010
Wednesday, April 07, 2010
Hey, over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, I also posted recently about the pre-Socratic Heraclitus, looking at a few of his fragments, including:
21. “You cannot step in the same river twice.”
108. “The way up and the way down are one and the same.”
118. “Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one.”
For Claire. She knows why.
A loopy movie that pulls the narrative rug out from under the audience on numerous occasions, The Book of Eli answers the question: what would you get if you combined the post-apocalyptic, Western, samurai, and religious epic genres? The answer is, The Good, the Bad-ass, and the Holy Man; or “all of the above”. I dug it for its gob smackingly over-the-top moments; but it’s hard to imagine a film that posits civilization will be saved by literacy that I would not like.
Denzel Washington plays a lone traveler, named Eli, in an America that was devastated by a nuclear explosion thirty years prior, trying to make his way “West” for mysterious reasons. He runs afoul of a crime boss (Gary Oldman) in a small town who has big aspirations of ruling the world (what’s left of it) through the powerful language in a book that was burned after the war, and which Eli has the last copy on earth. The traveler, meanwhile, intends to get where he’s going and is quite prepared to kill anyone who gets in his way.
It’s probably not giving away anything to reveal that the book is the Bible and Denzel is something of a holy man. It’s sort of like the Hughes Brothers said, “Okay, let’s just fuck with the commonplace idea that religious movies can’t have lots of bloody kung-fu scenes”. And I guess your take on the film will depend on how you see this particular narrative twist. I enjoyed it because it’s just so weird: The Holy Road Warrior? Also, the film neither buries the religious message, nor beats us over the head with it.
And, besides, after watching so many movies, I simply crave “WTF?” moments. There’s a point here in which the baddies are firing thousands of rounds of ammunition into a farm house owned by an elderly cannibal couple and Eli receives the prophecy that our heroes will live and the old human-munchers will kick the bucket, which promptly happens; all the while, the camera is swooping between the house and the gatling gun, following the path of the bullets; and the scene was just so over-the-top and nutzoid that it was impossible for me to dislike the rest of the movie.
That said, the final narrative twist doesn’t really make a lot of sense in the context of the movie, it’s pretty hard to imagine that Eli read the Bible for thirty years and never got to anything like “Thou Shalt Not Kill a Massive Number of Bad Guys via Your Awesome Fighting Skills”, I never understood how human beings were supposed to survive if they have almost no access to water, and I’m guessing it doesn’t really take thirty years to walk across the American continent. Nevermind. I’m still a sucker for ultra-violent action movies with loopy narratives, and the final message: that civilization will be saved by book-readers and literacy, was truly righteous. Amen.
Here's something cool: Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection. Twenty graphic illustrators teamed up with twenty native American storytellers to bring to life tales of clever tricksters. One of the artists is our friend Evan Keeling, who let us know about it. From the art I've seen, it looks like a great collection.
Saturday, April 03, 2010
I'm still blogging the canon, today I wrote about the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides:
"First off, I’m not sure we can say the philosophy of Parmenides exactly “works”. That is, I don’t think we can take his ideas as precepts. Because, essentially, Parmenides speaks of the impossibility of speaking truthfully about things that do not exist. So, even this paragraph is a problem: Parmenides does not exist, so I can’t talk about him..."
Yeah, I had to see this movie. I saw it at the drive-in with my wife (who I no doubt annoyed by trying to explain all the mythology and how it was changed for the movie) and lots of teenagers. This is pretty much a standard kid’s movie, complete with sped-up CG battle scenes and faux portentous dialogue. Characters essentially yell out lines like: “Men. Will. Reign!” That’s not a real line in the movie but you can make this shit up in your sleep. “You! Will learn! The meaning of! Pain!!!” Add in really dramatic music and sweeping helicopter shots of landscapes and you have an epic movie. Or, at least, a commercial for one.
The reviews have been pretty lousy and it’s not entirely fair. Clash of the Titans isn’t a bad movie; it’s just really stock. Everything in it has been done in at least twenty other movies that came after Lord of the Rings. It’s more forgettable than bad. I think we’ve returned to the days of the kiddie matinee; it’s on that level. This one is the story of Perseus, a demigod as son of Zeus, who is leading humans in their battle to dethrone Zeus, Hades, and the other Olympians. If you’re a real geek, you’d ask at this point, “Why do they call it Clash of the Titans, if it’s humans fighting the Olympians who already overthrew the Titans? Where are the Titans in all this?” Okay, that’s true. But, Clash of the Olympians could easily be mistaken as the title of a movie about drunk athletes in Vancouver; you see where it’s confusing?
I barely remember the original at all, which people seem disappointed that this movie didn’t approximate. It was pretty cheesy though, right? There is a cameo by the mechanical owl in this one; it’s quickly put away, with a snarky line implying that this film will be more serious or intense, or maybe just more CG. It is, of course, also really cheesy, but it’s updated, cutting-edge cheese. I’d imagine, at this point, we’re about two years away from Hollywood making “Manimal: The Movie” and finally imploding.
Thursday, April 01, 2010
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Okay, so I'm still 'blogging the canon', and I promised to add links to those posts, in case anyone would like to leave comments. Actually, I'd encourage, cajole, and beg you to leave comments, since in general, blog posts on Herodotus and such are not really that popular. Thus:
Monday, March 29, 2010
Monday, March 15, 2010
It's been a really weird winter here in Canada: "The Home of Winter". We had something like a week of snow here and that was about it. Otherwise, it's been really weirdly springlike throughout the winter, but with the usual gray skies nonsense. The problem is I don't know what to do with the rose bushes; you're supposed to cut them when they die so the new ones can come in, but they're now really tall and still green and living. The other plants are like still alive with buds coming through the ground. If I don't cut them, I imagine they'll fuse into some sort of hideous Siamese twin plants.
Anyway, my suspicions were correct:
"Environment Canada scientists report that winter 2009/10 was 4 C above normal, making it the warmest since nationwide records were first kept in 1948. It was also the driest winter on the 63-year record, with precipitation 22 per cent below normal nationally, and down 60 per cent in parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario."Of course, he would say that. Damn lying climatologists. Also, damn the lying evidence of my lying senses. (All the comments on that story say basically that.)
"It's beyond shocking," David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, told Canwest News Tuesday. Records have been shattered from "coast to coast to coast."
Sunday, March 07, 2010
Tonight, the Academy Awards will be given out for the best films of the last year. I don't know if I'm qualified to make predictions, but I am struck by how lukewarm I am towards all of the nominated movies this year. I certainly liked Inglourious Basterds, mostly for the cinematography. And I really loved A Serious Man. I haven't seen Avatar, mostly because I keep being told the following by people who have seen it: "Oh, man, you have to see it for the computer visuals! It's about these blue cat people and, admittedly, the story is a little stupid and the dialogue is pretty cheesy, but it looks awesome!" Okay, I'll wait for the DVD, thanks.
Here are my thoughts on some of the nominated films:
Inglourious Basterds: Another mixtape of movie references from Quentin Tarantino. The cinematography is lush and the acting is highly entertaining. My only problem is that this is a "highly personal" film from a man who has no personal life. Woody Allen often has the same problem with "homages" that feel like rip offs, but at least he can draw from literature, New York life, philosophy, and his own neuroses; Tarantino has nothing else going on in his life aside from watching movies. Nevertheless, I do think we should encourage "talky" movies because I like actors and acting more than I like flying blue CG cat people.
Up in the Air: Hey, did you know that the corporate world can be impersonal? Or that it's psychologically unhealthy to avoid all personal relationships? Or that being fired sucks? Well, if not... Again, I was sort of meh about this movie. George Clooney is always good and everyone is good in it. Jason Reitman is a talented director. But it added up to less than the sum of its parts.
The Hurt Locker: I'm guessing the DVD chapters are something like: 1. Defusing a bomb, 2. Defusing another bomb, 3. Defusing two bombs, 4. A tense exchange, 5. Defusing a bomb... It's well-directed and certainly a tense movie. But, in the end, the Hurt Locker is just a stereotypical action flick: you have a crew of men doing a very dangerous job, and then they get a new guy; well, this guy is a real maverick! I mean, he's looked at the rule book and just thrown it away! So, this causes tension. And yet, in spite of the fact that he's a maverick who lives on the edge, he gets results, and you've got to respect that! But why does he live on the edge? Well, see, he's addicted to the thrill! Cue the hard rock.
Crazy Hearts: What's the easiest psychological problem to portray in a movie? Alcoholism! Just show the main character drinking in every scene and then, in the third act, either he stops drinking or doesn't. That's pretty much the movie. It's the tragic story of a singer who was once a megastar and has now fallen to being not as successful as another megastar, so he's a drunk. Nevertheless, the songs are pretty good and Jeff Bridges is as good as ever.
Up in the Air: Yes, everything Pixar does is amazing and this is no exception. But, if we're at the point that a pretty standard kid's cartoon gets movie of the year because of one heartbreaking montage in the opening credits, we're fucked.
District 9: Oh, piss off! A cheesy sci-fi movie can get nominated for best picture simply by shoehorning a political parable into its opening half-hour and then dropping it in lieu of video game violence and weird racism for the last hour?
A Serious Man: Only the Coen brothers could basically rewrite the book of Job as a comedy set in suburban Minnesota in the late 60s and have it work perfectly. A really funny movie about the mystery of faith and the meaning of life. Of course, it'll win shit.
Precious, An Education, and Avatar: I haven't seen these ones. I'm going to stay positive by assuming they're great. They're all about gay cowboys, right?
Seriously, I think we're being punished for having so many great films in the last few years. Movies like No Country for Old Men, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and There Will be Blood, I mean. Movies I wanted to see win. This year, it's like the Academy secretly knows the movies weren't very good, but had to nominate something.
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
I think this video marks the point at which auto-tuning went too far.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Claire recently scored a load of second-hand CDs through her thrift store job that were all much better than the usual thrift store fare. It`s a bit sad, actually, because someone unloading such a good collection probably means a death in the family.
One of the great CDs was Bettye Lavette`s `Scene of the Crime`. Ms Lavette has quite a history. She started singing at age 16 with the hit `My man, he`s a loving man`. She soon recorded the soul classic `Let me down easy`and recorded for a number of Detroit labels before signing with Atlantic-Atco.
Atlantic recorded the album Child of the Seventies in 1972 and made the completely inexplicable decision to not release it. She kept singing for years.
In 2000, a French soul aficionado finally released Child of the Seventies as Souvenirs, which began her comeback. Things really got rolling with her 2005 album I`ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, which was hugely popular with critics and fans.
You might have seen her at the Obama inauguration, dueting with Jon Bon Jovi.
Here she is doing a cover of the Elton John song `Talking Old Soldiers` that is bang on. Enjoy.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
I have a confession to make. I'm 35 years old and have been a purchaser of music for about the last 23 of those years. Until last week I had never purchased an album by a female artist. I'm not exactly sure why that is. I have purchases some individual songs, but no woman artist has impressed me to the point where I felt I needed the whole album.
This changed when I bought Émilie Simon's The Flower Book. I've been at least dimly aware of her existence since 2006 when Holly gave me a copy of the Thievery Corporation album Versions. The song on the album which stuck most vehemently in my craw was Émilie Simon's Desert. It's highly agreeable trip hop, but the most distinguishing feature is her voice. If you were to draw a triangle and label the vertices "Ice cream sundae," "blow job," and "Raphael's The School of Athens," Émilie Simon's voice would be near the barycenter.
I know what you're thinking: "Greg, you're just a sucker for hot french chicks." To which I can only fairly respond touché. In point of fact, it has pissed me off to no end that people have had music careers because of their looks or what they'll do in a producer's office and not their actual musical acumen. That is not the situation here. This album is catchy, musically interesting, and at times highly emotive. Instead of degenerating further into embarrassingly incoherent yummy noises, I'll let the music speak for itself.
Flowers ◊ Desert ◊ Fleur de Saison ◊ Dame de Lotus ◊ Dreamland
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
My name is Rufus and I am a recovering Pepsi addict. I was powerless before carbonated and caffeinated sodas, often blowing through five or six dollars a day on Dr Peppers, Mountain Dew variants, or my drug of choice, Pepsi Cola. Like a nerdy computer programmer, I was seldom seen without a soda of some sort, or as they call it here in Ontario, “pop”. When I went to France for six months, the closest convenience store went out of business, two events I’m convinced were related.
It all stems from my childhood. My mother drinks an incredible amount of Diet Coke each day, which is a step up from when we were kids and we always had Coke Classic in the house. I guess my switch to Pepsi was teenage rebellion, but I’ve probably had three “pops” a day, at least, since I was sixteen. I also remember regional variations, like “Teem”, and Claire will attest that I still mourn the loss of Surge.
I’ve heard for years about how sodas aren’t good for you; each one has four teaspoons of sugar, or more often these days, copious amounts of corn syrup. They give you cavities and make you fat and impotent. I used to find this very irritating. After all, I did give up cigarettes, binge drinking, and most drugs. What’s the problem with pop?
But, I’ll admit that living in a town with a great number of older diabetics (
Compared to quitting smoking, quitting pop was a tremendous ordeal. I don’t believe that “cold turkey” works, and so I’ve really just weaned myself down to a single weekly Pepsi. Believe it or not, just the first day was miserable. Making it through 24 hours without a Pepsi, something I’d not done for about 20 years, was agony; my head pounded, my heart raced, and I pretty much felt like I was trapped in a closed elevator. After I did that, however, it was easier to add a second day, and a third, etc.
My timing might be good. Last time I was in upstate New York, everyone was up in arms because the state wants to add a “sugary drink tax” to sodas. The voters are outraged. Of course, the state has a longstanding budgetary shortfall that everyone complains about too; while the voters rise up in outrage every time the state tries to raise taxes or cut any entitlements whatsoever. Last time I was there, people were protesting an idea to cut trash pickups to every other week. I guess my point is that American voters are crybabies.
But, as for pop, I’m on the wagon. Or, at least, I’ve become a “social drinker” instead of a “problem drinker”. I don’t know when someone’s going to give me a plastic chip, but it’s good to know that an aging dog can unlearn an old trick. Now, I just have to cut down my Internet usage to a reasonable amount.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
- The Iliad 1
- The Iliad 2
- The Bhagavad Gita
- The Epic of Gilgamesh
- Bach's Cantata 82 (Ich habe genung)
- Hesiod's "Works and Days"
- Notes on Populism
Oh, and there's still the matter of the dissertation. So, there's been no rest for the wicked.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
It's very sad to be noting this, but Alexander McQueen, who I've been raving about here for a little while, and following for the last several years, has apparently committed suicide. It's hard to explain why he was such an impressive designer. Fashion is a business that maintains an aura of innovation, while spiraling through about four or five basic trends over and over. So when a genuine visionary comes around, it's like firing a flare into a foggy sky. Sure, many of his clothes would be unwearable in the ordinary world; but then you might not want Dali to design your house either. There's still something exciting about a designer with a key to the dreamworld. It's too bad he's passed out of this less exciting realm.
Saturday, February 06, 2010
So far, I've been enjoying my trial period at League of Ordinary Gentlemen. And I think it's been going okay. It's hard to tell: they might be getting dozens of "cancel my subscription!" emails that I don't know about. I do have to say that I am enjoying blogging about "academic" topics without having to think like an academic. It's a bit like making a jailbreak from my day job.
Now, when I say "thinking like an academic", I don't mean a matter of being more intelligent than the average bear. In fact, I have not found that academics I know are significantly more intelligent than civilians. In some areas, of course, they're actually a bit less savvy. But, there is a sort of professionalization of thought that goes on when you're in academia. You learn to get your footnotes in order, so to speak. I don't know that your actual cognition improves; but you develop a certain amount of expertise on a particular subject and know when you are sufficiently informed to speak on that topic in a scholarly way, and when you should keep quiet.
Therefore, in "real life", there are really only about four or five topics that I would feel comfortable speaking about in a lecture hall or at a conference. When my area of research pulls me into a new direction (always happening!), I have to head to the library and nail down the 'textbook answer' about that new topic. If I had to, say, discuss Madame Bovary in an academic context, I'd really feel like I was obliged to first hit the stacks and learn about Flaubert, French literature, and what has been said and thought about the novel, before I wrote or spoke about it. I would probably feel guilty if I just read the novel and held forth on it based on my own responses. And I think that guilty conscience is what I mean when I talk about "professionalization". Academics tend to keep their intellect zipped up, if you know what I mean!
What's good about blogging on the Iliad or Plato is that I am a complete and utter novice; a pisher! A poseur! A beginner. I have to think about these books in a non-academic way, just in order to get anything done! My life would be a shambles if I was trying to learn ancient Greek right now, and I think I might be looking at the books in a different way. For me, reading the "great books" is like learning about a foreign culture through immersion. It's like being plunked down in the middle of a Moscow supermarket and having to get something done. The fun of it is taking stabs in the dark and getting to hear what other people have to say. On occasion, I've heard from actual scholars, although not as much as I'd like.
It's problematic, this academic habit of making people study everything for years before they can write on it, while teaching undergrads a little bit of everything. On one hand, this system has produced some of the best scholars in the world. But, there's a tendency for academic writing to be so narrow and specialized that you have to go through six years of grad school to read it! This causes there to be a gap between "popular" books and "academic" books, and it's hard to tell if that gap isn't really a matter of snobbery and university press protectionism. The end result, however, is that less and less civilians want to commit themselves to the humanities, which are really accessible to all people, but which we like to pretend require some specialized "higher" knowledge. The humanities seem arcane and obscure to people, when they actually take human beings as their subject matter.
I don't mean to bash academics once again- what I'm trying to suggest is that it's not a matter of snobbery or protecting a monopoly, as much as a matter of ingrained, professionalized insecurity. None of us wants to be called out for being ill-informed on a topic. But this makes it hard to achieve the sort of interdisciplinarity that everyone in the humanities talks about wanting; and it also makes it hard to relate to young people who often want to talk about academic subjects without first getting their papers in order!
If we're going to think freely, I think we need to spend more time thinking without first getting the proper scholarly clearance. The Internet seems as good a place to start as any.
(Note: Reworked notes on The Iliad here. Notes on Bach's cantata 82 coming soon, in spite of music being one of those areas in which I am a complete pisher.)
This video is currently going around the Internets and it perfectly captures the exotic and offbeat customs of Canadians- we can get milk in bags here. That's pretty much the extent of Canadian exoticism, if you exclude poutine. I do remember staring in wonder at the milk bags when I first moved here, or at least giggling. For the record, Claire and I usually buy cartons of milk. So, we're barely Canadian.
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
I had never heard of this film when Claire suggested that go see it with our friends. Apparently, the film has sent "Oscar buzz" buzzing around Jeff Bridges, for his lead performance as an alcoholic, somewhat washed-up country singer. Indeed, he gives a remarkable performance in the film. I actually had to remind myself after the film that Jeff Bridges can usually enunciate quite well- I'd so accepted his slurred speech as normal. He's also quite believable as a singer. The songs, by T-Bone Burnett, are exemplary country in the 70s "outlaw" style.
It's hard to make a movie about an alcoholic; either he's dead or wrecked at the end, or he cleans himself up. Barfly is an exception in that not much changes for our drunken hero. This movie works because the hero pulls out of the downward spiral in an unexpected way. I also liked that the characters clash throughout the film, but none of them is really a bad guy. Maggie Gyllenhaall is especially good: as usual, she makes the world seem a bit brighter every time she's on screen. Robert Duvall is good as ever; he was also a producer on the film, which is based on a novel by Thomas Cobb.
I am always glad to see movies about human beings interacting with one another, as opposed to fighting zombies or blue alien cat people. If I have one gripe it's that the independent movie about a sullen loser facing his failings is becoming as much of a cliche as the vapid CGI blockbuster. I'm not sure how long Hollywood can survive making only huge "tent pole films" and small-budget portraits of dysfunctional people. Shouldn't there be something in the middle? What about something like Serpico? Do they make those movies any more?
Monday, February 01, 2010
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Friday, January 29, 2010
I've been talking lately about expanding into greener pastures: in Internet terms, that would be a more active site. No offense to the readers here, lurkers and all. (And, of course, I won't abandon GSM!) But I'd like to try putting my thoughts up against a tough crowd of very active debaters.
So, in that vein, I should note that I will soon be entering a two-week trial period at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Things haven't been hammered out yet, but I'm thinking I'll extend the "blogging the canon" project there. After two weeks, we'll be able to tell if it's a good fit. If not, I will return with my tail between my legs. But, again, I will never abandon you here, my (very quietly) adoring public! I'm still Rufus from the block. (Oh God, I apologize for writing that.)
Actually, I highly recommend The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. The blog deals mostly with politics, but they do so with a goal of breaking out of the tired left/right dichotomy and boring culture war stances. To quote their masthead:
"The contributing writers hail from various points along the political spectrum, but all hold a deep and abiding commitment to the exploration of ideas outside the foray of rhetorical and ideological cul de sacs.
The entries are less posts than they are dialogues with an aim towards sustained discussion on topics and issues that lay at the foundations of our lives. This approach, we hope, will provide readers with a thoughtful and searching alternative analysis."I believe that great art and literature should lay at the foundations of our lives. But this brings up a question: Rufus, what does "blogging the canon" have to do with politics? Not a lot really.
Admittedly, however, it's surprisingly hard to talk about "the Western Canon" in North America without politics entering into it. If your goal is the preservation of the cultural patrimony, it's assumed you're a "cultural conservative"; and of course, I am in that sense: I do want to conserve the culture! But that doesn't mean I want people to go vote Republican and defend "family values" or whatever. I like to think of myself more as a curmudgeon than anything else. I don't know who curmudgeons vote for; we just bitch about everyone!
Besides, the point is to start talking about culture outside of the culture war stereotypes. The most genuine "cultural conservative" I've ever known was a professor who was a political anarchist, and absolutely dedicated to convincing young people to make Plato, Homer, Moses, and Dante part of their mental furniture. I think that the "great books" should be a part of everyone's life. Because, ultimately, reading these books is good for you. They make you more fully human!
Anyway, the League of Ordinary Gentlemen outpost will either succeed, or it will crash and burn. Either way, feel free to visit me there and post questions, insults, or jokes.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
"Hateful, and fain of love more hateful still,
Foul is the bird that rends another bird,
And foul the men who hale unwilling maids,
From sire unwilling, to the bridal bed.
Never on earth, nor in the lower world,
Shall lewdness such as theirs escape the ban:
There too, if men say right, a God there is
Who upon dead men turns their sin to doom,
To final doom. Take heed, draw hitherward,
That from this hap your safety ye may win."
- The Suppliants, Aesychles.
Aesychles is sometimes called "the father of drama". Of the great Greek dramatists, his plays are the oldest; although probably not the first in actuality, they're the oldest that still survive. I point out this potential answer to a Jeopardy question because Aesychles helps to illustrate something about the canon: he shows how it's surprisingly coherent, raising questions that have yet to be answered.
A digression: What got me interested in all of this in the first place was reading the French Romantics for my dissertation and realizing that these 19th century writers, who are so completely modern in so many ways, cannot be understood fully without having a good understanding of the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, Kant and Virgil- to begin with. Entire generations grew up steeped in this tradition so, when they wrote, they were taking part in conversations that have outlasted any blogospheric debate. In other words, for people not so long ago, this was culture and it was a totally living thing, as compared to how most of us experience it- distant, dead, and something to cram for the midterm! For me, it was the shock of realization that these texts are still living, contrary to the impression I always got from my professors.
Which brings us to The Supplicants, once considered the oldest play we have (now the second), and still startlingly relevant now that everyone has the people of Haiti in their thoughts, because it asks: "Are societies ever in the right in turning away refugees?" Admittedly, the refugees here are in a somewhat bizarre situation: the fifty daughters of the prince Danaus, the Daniades, are fleeing Egypt where their Uncle, Aegyptus, is trying to force them to marry his sons, their cousins. They will eventually be claimed and forty-nine of them will kill their husbands on their wedding nights. But, in the play, they have arrived en masse on the shores of Argos and they want to be granted asylum.
We're introduced to the Danaides first and it's hard not to sympathize with them- they're fleeing being forced into marriages, and hence sexual relationships that they find morally abhorrent. Incest is the oldest human taboo and one every society has shared. All nature rises up against it, as the Danaids claim in the above quote: even birds would fain pollute their race. One notices that there is plenty of incest in the ancient creation stories, such as the Egyptian; but that's because the gods can commit incest- it's in those stories to prove that they're gods and not like us. Humans have always had a visceral repulsion towards incest- King Oedipus will gouge out his eyes before too long. The Danaides, all fifty of them, have decided they will either take asylum in Argos, or the noose.
In a sense, the Danaides face something women throughout history have faced when they say, "save me from marriage with a man I hate." Marriages are still arranged of course; there's not much talk of love when it comes to a woman's marital destiny. In fact, Plato suggests (in the Symposium) that true love is to be found outside of marriage. The historical norm was for virgins to be offered up to men they barely knew on their wedding night. Aeschylus's comparisons between predatory young men and birds of prey still ring true. Marriage was a woman's fate, regardless of her wishes. The Danaides, of course, face something worse. Nevertheless, there are young women in many parts of the world who will still relate to the Danaides when they say: "Never, oh never, may I fall subject to the power and authority of these men. To escape this marriage that offends my soul I am determined to flee, piloting my course by the stars."
(Rodin's Danaide statue.)
The King, Pelasgus, would seem to have a fairly easy choice to make here. Basic morality compels him to protect these maidens in need. In addition, he has reason to believe that Zeus protects them, and no one can go against Zeus and fare well. I think we still see granting refugee status as a simple moral imperative; we just cannot turn away victims to be further victimized, if we can protect them. Ah, but there's the rub- at some point, we cannot protect them. How much security can we provide before we compromise our own safety? In this case, Argos is a relatively small city-state and the fleet of fifty hot and bothered Egyptians are soon coming to claim their wives, and there's good reason to believe they will make war over this. ( Clearly, the pickings were pretty slim in Egypt at this time!) Will Pelasgus follow the moral imperative even if it means getting his own people slaughtered?
And what if this other culture simply does things differently? Does the law of Zeus apply to those who worship other gods? Luckily for the Danaids, they are not a different people at all, but are also of the Argive race, which is again important here, as it was in the Iliad and Odyssey. Descent matters for the Greeks, having one foot still in the tribal world. Kin and clan matter. The mythological background: Io, a priestess of Hera was seduced by Zeus. In order to keep his mistress on the down low, Zeus turned her into a heifer, but his wife Hera got wise and tormented Io with a gadfly. Driven to distraction, Io eventually wandered all the way to Egypt and Danaus is among her descendants. So, when they show up in Argos, the Danaides and their father are reconnecting with racial kin. Even these exotic foreign refugees are from the same family.
What will be their fate? King Pelasgus chooses to let the people decide, a move that terrifies the maidens. Will the Argive people respond to the moral imperative, or will they seek to protect their own security? What do populations do when the two are at odds? Making the choice as a group, will they just find mutual support in taking the coward's way out? Will the maidens end up like Kitty Genovese: victimized because the onlooking crowd doesn't want to get involved? Does democracy result in heightened ethics, or do we sink lower together? If the choice is between turning a blind eye to the rape of these outsiders or having their own children get slaughtered, what is the right thing to do?
Aeschylus is responding to the stirring interest in democracy, which will be established in Athens two years later. He sets up the case for and against the Suppliants much like a courtroom drama. It's important to note that, for the maidens, it is not clear that democracy will lead to an ethical culture at all; they might well get thrown to the predators. For contemporaries, such as Aeschylus, it wasn't clear either. It still isn't.
However, for my money, Aeschylus screws up the play when it comes to the public vote, leaving it off-stage. This is the main source of tension in the play- a great way of staging The Suppliants would be to have the audience vote on the fate of these refugees. Instead, Aeschylus sets up tension about the vote and then has Danaus come on stage to inform us how it went: Good news! The maidens will stay. (Maybe I should have said "spoiler alert"!)
Of course, including the Argos public on stage would be extremely difficult. The play is already almost comically complicated- after all, the "Chorus" is made up of fifty women, who are also protagonists in the story. Drama is not yet perfected. Perhaps the reason that I've yet to see a performance of The Suppliants is that it's likely hard to stage it without it degenerating into farce.
Nevertheless, the quick denouement is a real let down. I'll admit that I felt a bit ripped off and yelled "What are you doing, Aeschylus?!" at the text. My wife has, thankfully, come to expect these sorts of outbursts; the cat was a bit frightened. It's still very disappointing to me how Aeschylus plays this off as a very easy choice, when the whole play argues that it's not an easy choice. Sticking our neck out to protect the weak and victimized is never as easy as it should be. Not in this life. Sure, the Argos democracy "does the right thing". But the point of the play is that these debates will take place in democracies for generations to come because it's seldom written in thunder what the right thing might be.