Adventures in Cultural Consumption:
Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain
A few observations:
Kitchen Confidential was obviously a very popular book. It seems to be one, however, where the feature of the book that makes it good is quite different than the one identified as the reason for its success. People might like the foul-mouthed bad boy with entertaining stories and a no-nonsense attitude, but the book transcends food porn because Bourdain was, by his own admission, never more than a pretty good chef at a pretty good restaurant, and one for whom the future was bleak. Kitchen Confidential is essentially a tragic book, because its author had fallen into a trap of his own devising, and was never going to get out. He tells the stories he does because he has nothing to lose in telling them, and nothing to gain in being discreet.
He also stresses all the important points that, for understandable reasons, never make it into cookbooks or television cooking shows: that the most important things are reliability and repetition, and that virtually everything in the kitchen is pretty hard work if you want to do it well. It is manual labor, with all the difficulties that implies: you may build up the requisite skills to make things easier, but it shows in one's body, mind and spirit no matter how 'easy' it may now be.
In this sense, it's a helpful corrective to a certain kind of fetishizing of manual labor of which conservative political thought is sometimes guilty--I'm thinking Shop Class as Soulcraft and a professor or two who have declared a preference for farm life--that hard physical work is better, and somehow purer. Unlike many of these projects, Bourdain is clear on where his skills fall on the spectrum of ability--the bottom end of the top end, let's say--as opposed to those who never give any clear sense of how successful they are at their chosen vocations. This allows Bourdain to see quite clearly the varying levels of skill, and judge them accordingly: he can understand how and why the very top chefs are good, even if he can't do what they do, and he knows enough to recognize what should be within reach for competent chefs and criticize them for failing to reach that level. This is the other big point: cooking may once have been a choice for the Bourdain of Kitchen Confidential, but it ceased to be one once his livelihood depended on it. The professor who wants a farm will always, in some sense, be playing at it, because the farm is optional. The person who has other options is engaging in a higher or lower form of authenticity tourism, and this is too little recognized.
And it's this notion--of 'authenticity tourism'--that makes Medium Raw compelling. As a taster or consumer of food, Bourdain is world-class and quite interesting; any time his cooking abilities come into play, he is quite clear-eyed about his limitations compared to the people he knows now. He has at least one really remarkable skill that comes out of this: the willingness to second-guess his judgments. Thus the essay on Alice Waters, which notes many of her battier pronouncements, but also those aspects of her influence that have been positive, and thus issues a thoroughly mixed verdict, but intentionally so: someone with a long career mixed with good and bad moments will be difficult to sum up adequately, and rather than write an appreciation or a Slate-style takedown, it should just all end up in the essay.
Adventures in Cultural Consumption:
Harry Potter Blogging, However Improbable That May Seem
So, this proposed alternative ending is terrible for two entirely separate reasons:
1. It shows total ignorance of the mythic source material. Harry has to choose to die, or else the prominent Christian arc of the story fails (I suppose it's little noticed that his parents' gravestone has an apposite Biblical quotation on it that's in line with the metaphysics of dead people in the series). Harry has the comfort of those who have died surrounding him, and his sacrifice is still terrifying, because he doesn't know if he will come back: this is why it's a sacrifice. He has to die. (This is also why he has a stable wife, kids, and friends at the end: dude has suffered enough. People seem to hate this for not being realistic enough in a story about magic.) To kill Voldemort and emerge unscathed is perhaps more 'badass,' but it makes him less recognizably human.
2. The ending is also needlessly cruel in what seems to be the modern style: people really want Don Draper to commit suicide at the end of Mad Men, people debated whether it'd be cooler for Walter White to die or take out a bunch of the bad guys, Boardwalk Empire only rises to any aesthetic heights when devising new ways to show people being killed. An ending can only be 'real' if it's tragic, if it kicks the main characters in the most ingenious of ways. I would think one need only point out that adult life isn't like that, but I'm not sure that would convince anyone.
Remaining Illegible in an Information Age
There's a longstanding joke about statistical and quantitative analysis: a man loses his keys one night, and is looking for them under a streetlight. When asked why he's looking only there and not elsewhere, he replies "because that's where the light is." So it goes: people interested in data have a vested interest in reducing the world to data and ignoring everything else. In political science, despite the increasing sophistication of statistical methods, there is very little that can be robustly modeled, and what can be modeled is usually of little value in predicting the future. The bluster is quite high, but it is rarely delivered on.
The Secret of Cheers, or How to Maintain High Quality for a Really Long Time:
Beliefs about a current renaissance of TV quality notwithstanding, I have occasionally pointed out that network shows are at an extreme disadvantage compared to cable because their runs have to be longer: 22 or 24 episodes rather than 6 or 10 or 13. This is also true of the length of shows themselves: 25 minutes in the 80s for a 30 minute show, rather than 22 (or less; Archer runs just barely over 20) now. Given that, I find it remarkable that Cheers is easily and obviously a better sitcom than anything else that has aired since: more time at a higher level than anyone else. Now, like most viewers, I don't like them all equally (I could ignore most Cliff episodes and not feel much loss), but the quality is always present.
The secret, as it turns out, is in the parenthetical above: there are a few episodes each season devoted to specific characters: 25 episodes might include...
2 Norm episodes (or 3)
2 Frasiers (after season 3)
...a couple that introduce random characters into the mix, and a couple that focus on aspects of Sam or Diane/Rebecca's personality that have nothing to do with the main story arc. So whatever that story arc is, it only has to drive 10-15 episodes in a season, sometimes fewer: you've just managed to create a smaller prestige show inside a larger network one. Further, the rules are different in the non-arcing episodes: Norm and Cliff have to end up pretty much where they start, and to the extent anyone else gets an arc, it sets up slowly over seasons; each episode is mostly an excuse for the writers to do a funny idea. It hardly matters whether it goes anywhere or not, since that's not the viewer's expectation.
Compare this to other shows, including those that are explicitly attempting to work within the Cheers paradigm, and it's clear how hard this is to do: Parks and Rec can hardly do a story without a significant Leslie component even if it's "about" someone else (this, I think, is why the Ron and Tammy segments are so well regarded), or how much New Girl flails around with how central Nick and Jess' relationship needs to be.
The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
The thing that's funny about this:
"But surely some of the frustration with [Greta Gerwig's decision to do a CBS sitcom] is actually a projection of frustration at the medium she is (perhaps only temporarily) leaving behind, which is now so dominated by effects-driven—not to mention male-oriented—spectacles that there is no money for movies about people, emotions, and ideas—not to mention women. "
...is that all the examples of innovative TV work and movie-stars-going-to-tv are all white men. And it makes me wonder whether the relentless hyping up of Girls has at least as much to do with the fact that Lena Dunham must be present to balance out all that Great White Maleness so that tv looks more inclusive and radical.
Two interventions in the latest round of the CCOA debate. Tangential to that line of argument, and so here, not there.
1. Phoebe writes, in the comments: "If the entire system were to change, and everyone just went to the nearest state school, rather than to a school tailored to needs or preferences of students like them, then maybe we could have a conversation about what College consists of, down to the specific texts."
I find it interesting that these arguments are always at elite liberal arts colleges or Ivy League schools, and never (one MOOC revolt aside) at places like Virginia, UNC, or my alma mater, Michigan. Conservatives at Michigan would complain about the University-mandated Race and Ethnicity requirement, but mine was fulfilled learning about the treatment of the Irish by the British in the early 20th century, so it was kind of a hollow complaint. The reason is, largely, that once a university passes a certain size, it becomes logistically impossible--and kind of silly--to assume the purpose of a university education is unitary. Education then requires many departments with many professors, and so by definition a large number of successful paths. The intricacy of major requirements was usually tied to the size of the department, if only because it became difficult to ensure what classes might be available the larger (and thus more irregular) the department gets; the ability to specialize increases with departmental size. (A department with 50 professors each teaching (say) a 2-1 where half of them get to teach a course based on their research is likely to produce some questionable-seeming courses even if the curriculum as a whole is conventional.) If the scenario Phoebe envisions were to come to pass, I would expect this would make a conversation about what college consists of, down to the specific texts, impossible (this, of course, supports Phoebe's overall point).
And, goodness, class size: I took exactly five classes with fewer than 40 students: two sections of Spanish (at about 30), my two senior seminars in philosophy and political science, and one We Need a 400-level Course to Get Our Philosophy Degree. Seminar-style pedagogy is barely possible with the Chicago-mandated Core course size of 19: it is impossible above 40. As a teacher, your aims and outcomes need to be radically different, not least because the students have different expectations. There were 400 people in my Intro to Political Theory, 45-60 for my course on Dante, a similar number for my course on the Russian novel, near 100 for my British history in the 20th century courses, 45-60 in every art history course I took. There's less discussion, more lecturing, more emphasis on getting students to do synthetic work in papers and exams to demonstrate they have done some learning on their own, and professors tend to be thrilled to get students in office hours who just want to talk about their subjects. Come to think of it, the perfect conservative university education may be hiding at big state schools, even right now.
2. Having taught the Core-iest of social science Core courses, and having received my education from Michigan in what was a (voluntarily chosen!) classics-oriented manner, I am willing to venture the opinion that the second is superior to the first. The reason is simple: repetition. Approximately one year of exposure to the classics and then a conventional university education in another subject will not (necessarily) leave a student in a noticeably better place. Students tend to grasp Aristotle, or Aquinas, or Marx, only at the point the course moves on to another figure, and so what remains is rarely coherent and situated in the right context. The eventual result is, depending on the level of reference you prefer, the character in Balzac's Lost Illusions who likes to quote Ciceronian maxims to prove how educated he is, though he long ago forgot the context for any of them, or Father Guido Sarducci's Five-Minute University; the persistence of people who read Aristotle long ago and are positive they remember what he said is astounding. Reading Shakespeare, or Milton, or Aristotle, or Locke only once will rarely make much of an impact: reading it a number of times in different circumstances will. So apart from an attempt to mandate not just introductory course selection, but all course options, it seems like this will fail; and even if all course options were mandated, it'd still require the will of the individual student to make it work.
Art and the Artist
(In response to Phoebe specifically, but also in general)
I tweet the following semi-periodically, and it probably deserves a longer explanation: