Anti-Climacus


"Thou shalt not extinguish thine anger, but shall master it, that thy conscience may not be blunted by adjustment to wrong causes."
-The Dutch Ten Commandments to Foil the Nazis

18.9.14

Adventures in Cultural Consumption, Halfway Through A Dance To The Music Of Time Edition

At Lady Molly's
Casanova's Chinese Restaurant
The Kindly Ones

Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time, makes the most interesting structural choice in these, the fourth through sixth books of the series: he keeps his wife out of the story almost entirely. She's introduced as a character in book four, but does not utter a line of dialogue until halfway through the sixth book (and then, not a particularly revealing conversation). The premise, as explained at the beginning of Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, is that marriage is a curious thing: publicly-facing but intensely private, so that, as Jenkins says, you can know two married people quite well and not know anything, really, about how they relate to each other (especially if they are happily or well married). Jenkins' married life is not usually material to the story at hand, and so it is almost always omitted, or referred to obliquely, and this seems entirely proper--even respectful to his wife and their shared existence. This seems approximately correct to me: the sentiments that are entirely proper inside my own marriage would feel improper, or vulgar (as in 'not done'), to expand on too much.

All of which relates back to parental overshare, which, as Phoebe has documented at some length, is a topic where every person who has ever parented seems to feel free sharing every detail of their struggles with their child, no matter how embarrassing. I can only slightly imagine being a parent myself, but were that ever to be the case, I cannot imagine wanting to make the details of that child's life known to (or knowable by) the general public. Neither spouses nor children are fit subjects to validate one's own life choices (the only mode of such essays is apologia for those things done rightly or wrongly), and are best left to silence, the conversation of close friends, or those forms of writing that prize anonymity within the advice requesting and dispensing context.* If you must write, a world of other topics exist.


*I mean, there's a reason why writers of third-person research pieces pick their subjects; better to strive at objectivity than drown in a sea of subjective decision and justification. Wouldn't you, in any event, worry that your own experience is so hopelessly idiosyncratic that it could not possibly apply to everyone? Or are the writers of these confessional pieces the journalistic equivalent to the people who wander down the middle of an airport concourse, oblivious to whether they're blocking anyone's way?


17.9.14

On the NFL, Domestic Violence, and Child Abuse

The miracle of the Ray Rice fiasco is that the NFL has, improbably, failed to do the one thing that American corporate culture dictates: fire the person responsible as quickly as possible. If the NFL had fired Roger Goodell last Monday, or he had resigned, the story would be dead right now, and no one would care. Instead, we have been able to witness something more surprising: a large segment of the population figuring out the problem of American masculinity in real time.

We don't need to look very far for evidence that a quick firing would have killed interest in the topic: Penn State did the sensible thing and fired Joe Paterno as soon as it became clear he knew something about the decades of child sexual assault perpetrated by one of his assistants--fired him because knowing something and not reporting it is morally inexcusable. As a result of this decision, the people who were maddest about the crime considered justice (mostly) done and forgot about it, and the Cult of Paterno quickly came to think of him as a man railroaded, and preferred living in their paranoid fantasy of people who hate PSU for 'doing things the right way,' which also conveniently allows them to avoid any extended reflection on what happened and where it happened.

Goodell didn't resign, and so people noticed that Jim Harbaugh (may he never coach at Michigan) talked a tough line about domestic violence but was more than willing to forgive, and that the Carolina Panthers were allowing a man who had been convicted(!) of domestic violence to continue playing. And then they noticed, or remembered, that the NFL has a constant, ongoing problem with domestic violence. All of which is good, and all of which only happens because an entity obsessed with its image failed to execute the most basic of PR moves.

And then there was Adrian Peterson beating his child bloody, which led to this:



A grown man with impeccable masculinity credentials saying on an NFL broadcast that his mother was wrong to have beaten him, and the NFL doesn't care at all about women.

As a result, the conversation has shifted from a question of football, or football culture, to a question of American masculinity more generally. It leads people like Drew Magary, he of the Dick Joke Jamboroo, to write:

That's what corporal punishment is. It's a failure. It's a complete breakdown of communication between parent and child. Children are unpredictable, reckless, and occasionally violent. They can drive otherwise rational humans into fits of rage. And I have had moments—many moments, certainly—where I have felt that rage after exhausting every last possible idea to get them to behave: bribery, timeouts, the silent treatment, walking away (they follow you!), distraction, throwing the kids outside (they end up ringing the doorbell a lot), you name it. So I have tried corporal punishment as a final resort, a desperate last stab at closure. That's an easy way for parents to justify it: You forced me to do this, child. Spanking the kid did nothing for me. It only made me realize what a fucking failure I was. Oh, and the kid still kept yelling.

Spanking and beating your kid teaches your kid to talk with violence. It validates hitting as a legitimate form of communication. Everything is modeled. I have yelled at my kids, and then seen them yell. I have smacked my kid, and then watched her smack someone else. They don't learn to be good from any of it. They don't learn to sit still and practice piano sonatas. All they learn is, Hey, this works! And then they go practice what you just preached. Beating a kid creates an atmosphere of toxicity in a house that lingers forever: One beating leads to the next, and to the next, and to the next, until parents don't even know why they're beating the kid anymore. They just do. Once it is normalized, it takes root. Parents begin to like the habit. Those pictures of Peterson's kid? The violence can get worse ... much worse ... so much worse it's astonishing.

It is eminently logical, reasonable, and centered around the idea of a father having adult responsibilities he must manage in a way compatible with his maturity and his reason. The continued crisis leads to people reflecting in deeper, more complex ways about the nature of masculinity in football. It solidifies a consensus amongst people who would not have devoted a lot of attention to the issue that domestic violence is a widespread problem, and corporal punishment is not an acceptable parenting strategy. It creates a clear and vocal consensus where it might have been unexpressed, and encourages people to disapprove of behavior that falls outside those norms--a rare, but welcome, sign of social pressure being exerted to good ends. It gives us that most American of spectacles, the sponsors bailing out. Nothing impresses an American like declining the opportunity to make money, and very little makes money like the NFL: if a company does not want to be associated with them, it sends the powerful signal that something has gone terribly wrong.

So long as the condition of Goodell's remaining in office is a continued spotlight on domestic violence, child abuse, and the people who would enable them, I hope he never resigns.

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12.9.14

An odd little article on the ipod, odd in the way its view of technology is only capable of looking forward: the transition from ipod to cloud-based music-playing services is rendered as some strange new world. But there is nothing new or strange about these services: they are simply radio in some other form. What was radio, after all, if not a means by which to give away control over the music one hears in exchange for someone else curating a collection they assume someone else will like, including the task of introducing them to music of which they would otherwise be unaware? Streaming services are radio simpliciter; cloud-based services like Amazon Prime Music require either individual cultivation or deferring to someone else's playlist.

Here's the thing: radio is uncool. Most people are also uncool. That there was a fifteen year gap in which people did not primarily listen to and acquire new music in this way is the aberration, not the return of the norm. To listen to the radio (especially now) is to admit a level of indifference about what one listens to that is in direct conflict with the development of taste, or with anything other than the initial stages of the development of taste. That's fine--there are a lot of things to care about and one needn't be overly concerned with being on the cutting edge of everything. But it doesn't affect the habits of the serious taste-developing part of the music world because the people who listen to music via the radio aren't part of that world. (In the same way, approximately, that the presence of a library doesn't impact the ability of a person who cares to develop literary taste. It may even help to develop it. But a serious commitment to reading in adult modes will eventually reveal its limitations.)


I have little interest, generally, in whether First Things is a magazine that is supportive of, or hostile to, those Protestants who might read it. It's a magazine founded by a Catholic and run by Catholics (for the most part), and they're certainly welcome to feature or ignore what they want. But this memorial of Wolfheart Pannenburg is an example of doing things wrongly: you could read the article with some attention and miss out on the fact he's Lutheran and thus (at least somewhat) out of step with Catholicism. You'd miss it because there's one scant mention of his being Lutheran and a substantial paragraph devoted to how Catholics did and might now read him. The astute reader will also note that he's continually referred to as a "Christian" thinker, which seems less a way of affirming his general theological interests, and more of a way of not having to use the term 'Lutheran' too much.


19.8.14

On Bob Dylan's Singing Voice



I've been putting together a playlist that draws from The Anthology of American Folk Music, and it reminded me of a point I've never committed to writing before: Bob Dylan is the Miller Lite* of American folk singing.

The important thing to know about the Anthology is that the songs are all great, the arrangements frequently interesting, the instrumentation sometimes excellent, and the singing almost uniformly terrible. But it's not terrible in only one way, but in every possible way: pitchy, off-key, shrill, incomprehensible, arhythmic, unable to sustain a note for long enough, and all other imaginable failings. Even early Bob Dylan, before he has entire control of his voice, is vastly superior: musical, on-key, and capable of sustaining a wide variety of affectations. Most people who hear him aren't comparing him to the (inferior) things he replaced, but the (superior) talents brought in from other musical traditions.


*Beer snobs and purists tend to forget that the reason Miller, Anheuser-Busch et al dominated the American market for so long is that they replaced regional brews that were far worse, or at the very least inconsistent. A Miller Lite is no one's best beer, but it will also be always, and only, itself. The same also for McDonald's replacing local diners at rest stops along highways: it will never be your best meal, but you will also never get food poisoning (as people who travelled back then can tell you was always a risk).


5.8.14

"First of all, it’s not my job to make people feel better about liking something that is really, really popular"

Agree wholeheartedly:


There may be another kind of friendly fascism at work here too, but let me at least try to say some nice things first. I realize that there’s no way to mollify the devotees of the Marvel movie universe, who not only demand total box-office domination (which they’re definitely going to get, at least this weekend) but also total toadying subservience to the tide of Irresistible Marvel Fun. First of all, it’s not my job to make people feel better about liking something that is really, really popular. There are a whole lot of places you can get that, and honestly that desire for universal affirmation is kind of bizarre.

I found that bit of the review to be accurate, and the worldview it describes a bit confusing. Through many years of reading, watching movies, listening to music, etc, I'm not sure that I've ever had the coercive expectation that people like the things I like. I can remember being an R.E.M. and Rolling Stones fan in high school and carrying around the expectation that I'd be the only one and that was fine. In some ways better, of course, for all the usual reasons of snobbery, which has its own pleasures.

This is not to say I don't have opinions--any reader of this blog will know better than that--nor that I don't have an internal hierarchy of aesthetic pleasures. I just can't imagine having my day ruined because someone disagrees, because most people will probably disagree. And that's fine. Roberto Bolaño's 2666 seems to me a masterpiece, and I am happy to put together an argument to that effect. But I can just as easily imagine thinking it good but not particularly liking it, or envision those technical and substantive choices in constructing the book that I find compelling not being the sort of thing to which someone else might respond, and I can even conceptualize rejecting 900-page books on principle. I like the book for objective reasons and for subjective reasons about the point in my life when I read it. That combination won't be replicated for anyone else, so even someone who thinks well of the book will do so for different reasons.

If there's a cause for this sort of attitude (see also what happens when I mention to certain people never having seen The Wire or Breaking Bad), it's the idea of a aesthetic object as a cultural signal. It's hard to get worked up about someone's feelings on any one particular book when your universe is "books, obviously, though some and not others"--any particular one is fungible, and not liking one book may be balanced by liking another--or many others.

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One of the things I like best about the show Brooklyn 99 is its continual low-level insistence that the reason crime was so bad in New York in the 70s and 80s was at least in part due to the willful incompetence of the NYPD. The two 70s holdovers are represented as the least qualified and able, the detective who became famous is unconcerned with the quality of police work that gets done, and the people who would have been marginalized in that environment end up being invaluable parts of getting the job done.

As it turns out, the show's not wrong about how bad it used to be.

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30.7.14

Hipster confessions first: I've been watching the World Cup since 1998, where I learned the first sacred principles of the sport: always root against Brazil, Italy and Germany, in that order. As with the others things I do in my life, I like to learn about the mechanics of the sport as I go along, in order to better understand the game. This time around I learned two things: the importance of the first touch, and the difference between high-crossing and attacking the box as offensive styles. Both of the ideas are simple. The first touch a striker gets matters a great deal, because he has the maximum offensive advantage at that point, having a plan for what he wants to do and keeping his opponents from knowing. Touches beyond the first give defensive players a chance to get into better position, close off potential angles, and figure out the striker's plan of attack. High-crossing offenses rely on confusion amongst central defenders to make scoring opportunities; box-attacking offenses crowd players into the center and allow offensive help to come on the wings.

What fascinates me about this is the same thing that fascinates me about the technical problems of writing or reading: they represent human attempts to solve human problems, where an author's strategies for tricking himself for writing are different tokens of the same type as high-pressing a tiki-taka offense. Any one particular author's solutions are unlikely to work for me, since my problems and difficulties have different emphases, but the approach to solving a problem is likely to be quite useful, even as a solution for an entirely different type of problem. I've written before about how "The Part About the Crimes" in 2666 was a great model for my dissertation, since they faced on some level of abstraction the same difficulty: how to write small variations on the same sort of thing over and over again while keeping the reader interested.

I find the incuriosity of people in the face of the boggling variety of human expressions to be baffling, but that's another post for another time.

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Interesting that the Dissolve roundtable on The 40-Year Old Virgin stumbles over the sexual politics of that movie. The contradiction is simple: most of them like the movie, or liked it when they first saw it, and now need an explanation of how that could coexist with its problematic treatment of women and male homosexuality. Thus the two unsatisfactory options presented, that the film was acceptable in 2005 but not in 2014, or that the jokes are acceptable because they are not mean-spirited. Not present is the obvious third option, that good-spirited people who knew better shouldn't have been making those jokes in 2005, and that the distinction between "laughing with" and "laughing at" the characters is a thin one; the long and sordid cultural afterlife of the movie's gay jokes should be indication enough that a large portion of the audience for this broadly popular movie did not grasp the difference.

There's now a portion of the internet devoted to unearthing peoples' past statements and opinions and attempting to retroactively punish people who once believed things inconsistent with the standards of 2014. This is as misguided as the attempt to play off 2005 jokes as products of a different time that cannot possibly be held to our (new!) standards. The correct thing to say, it seems to me, is this: cultural products, opinions, political stances, etc, are a product of their times, which is to say of a complex web of interactions which we cannot recreate entirely, not least because some significant portion of that web happens within an individual person's head. Since we are bound to be charitable in our interactions with one another, we should assume the presence of sufficient explanatory reasons for the behavior we deserve. But we can also, by the same standards, point out that sweeping generalizations or attempting humor off the identities of marginalized people is always going to be bad form at best. Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan may be alright guys, but "you know how I know you're gay?" was wrong as a violation of decorum, not political correctness, as tasteless in 2005 as it remains now.

(I realize this is both a cranky old man and a buzzkill reaction. I am not an Apatow fan, so it costs me nothing to point out that one of the many not-particularly-funny jokes in his movies is also deeply problematic. But compare this to a similar joke structure in 1998's The Big Lebowski:

The Dude: Walter, the Chinaman who peed on my rug, I can't go give him a bill, so what the f*** are you talking about?
Walter Sobchak: What the f*** are you talking about? The Chinaman is not the issue here, Dude. I'm talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you do not … also, Dude, "Chinaman" is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.

...in which The Dude is wrong, Walter clearly right, and the joke is in Walter's correcting him and the precise verbal formulation in which the correction is given.)

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24.7.14

Adventures in Cultural Consumption, Metaphysics Edition

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Propulsive and difficult to put down. Not, perhaps, the most finely written of novels, but enjoyable. As the distance from reading it grows further, I am more dissatisfied with the way in which the novel resolves itself by side-stepping its central question about the relationship between the old gods and the new.

A metaphysical quibble: as I understand it, the book is agnostic on the god-iness of the gods. It is sufficient to say that gods gain their power from worship, especially in the performance of certain sacred rites; this is how Easter can be strong even though no one knows who she is or the relationship of their celebrations to her worship. The underlying idea is that America is a hard place for gods to exist, because they are too easily forgotten and left behind, the new technological gods as easily as the old cultic gods.

All of which is fine, except that Gaiman ignores the elephant in the room: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. If all that matters in performance of the rites, then the gods associated with each of these should be quite strong, even dominant, certainly much more than Wednesday or Loki or anyone else. But to admit this would undermine the central tenet of the book, that America is hostile to the gods. Nor can one argue that the Norse gods, et al, are real and the Christian God, et al, are not, since it seems to be the case that worship is constitutive of the reality of the thing worshipped. So it seems like the book has to fail on its own terms.

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