22.7.15

I'm not much of one for fine-tuning arguments for the existence of God (or any arguments for or against the existence of God, for that matter), but if I were:

the fact that a 12" record being spun at 33 1/3rpm produces enough music to last for exactly one human adult attention span (~20 minutes, according to pedagogical research) would be proof enough.

21.7.15

A Brief Note On Living In the South, Weather Edition

Growing up in the midwest, precipitation was a metaphysical certainty. The wind blows from west to east (if it blows in any other direction, you're in serious trouble). There are no geographic features to slow or disturb a front as it moves through. From the right vantage point, you can watch a storm come in for, literally, hours before it hits. But it will always hit.

In the south, count on no precipitation until it is falling. Has it gone twilight dark at 2:00pm? Do you see endless thunderheads in the sky? Is it raining nearby, as part of a storm that is very clearly headed in your direction? None of these mean anything: in the last week, I have seen all these fail to result in rain. (There has also been a random thunderstorm, not visible on radar, that camped out over our house for 30 minutes.) Why all this happens I could not possibly say.

20.7.15

Books Do Furnish a Room
Temporary Kings
Hearing Secret Harmonies

I agree with much of the standard reception of these three books, the weakest in A Dance to the Music of Time. They condescend to soap opera antics too readily; they contain too much plot and too much emphasis on dramatic turns of event; they require one to believe that Widmerpool, Pamela, X. Trapnel, Murtlock and Gwinnet are interesting figures, none of whom can carry a plot--except perhaps for Gwinnet, about whom the least is said and who remains the most inscrutable.

But the plotting was always going to be a problem, because what could possibly follow on World War II? What could be as dramatic, what could earn that drama? Especially since the main character cannot be young, or in too close contact with the young, and therefore is in no position to experience what was new in that period.

I think there's a more general problem of age and experience, which is to say that one's life becomes in certain respects more meaningful as one ages, but less eventful*; if you are conventional and succeeding at conventional life, the days are a succession of variations on the same theme, and if one decides, as Powell had Jenkins decide, that family life is not a fit subject for discussion--Isobel becomes slightly more of a visible presence in the last three novels, but their children are never discussed at all--there simply isn't very much to say. The only people who make waves at this point are the ones who have made a mistake of some or another kind, and given the novels' attitude towards people who remarry--"sometimes it doesn't work out, oh well, and sometimes it takes three or four tries to find one that sticks"--who live together but don't marry, etc, it's going to take a significant amount to make waves. For goodness' sake: Jean Templer goes off and marries a South American dictator, and it barely gets discussed.

The writing of the novels themselves belies the excuse that there's nothing left to talk about: Anthony Powell begins the series at approximately the same age and life experience as Nick Jenkins in Books Do Furnish a Room when he takes up an interest in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. The man who is behind the times and to whom nothing of particular interest happens anymore is the one who is just about the same as the one who writes so engagingly of the pre-war world. One may say, of course, that this is just so: one should expect that a large and self-contained chunk of life that had a very definitely end-point should submit itself to narrative quite easily, while the portion Powell lived while writing his books, lacking anything like a point or thrust, proves more difficult to write. The decision to omit the family from discussion as life might most intensely circle around family deprives one of obvious material. Nevertheless, it's hard not to leave the cycle wanting something more from its end than the explicit details of the Widmerpool-Pamela marriage; even "talking with the neighbors about the difficulties of the local quarry expanding" seems more promising.


*I had the very definite feeling several weeks ago of realizing that the large majority of internet controversies-of-the-day are being written about by people distinctly younger than me; I think the moderately self-aware person reaches a point at which they realize these controversies repeat themselves endlessly in only the most minor variations, none of them resolving one way or the other, and no one changing their mind. (Time changes most minds, but they don't realize that yet.) The energy wasted on these seems tragic, in its own way, but everyone finds a sustainable balance eventually, I suppose.

I remember a few years ago talking with an undergrad about what she was reading--Steven Pinker and the usual aspirant undergrad literature adventures--and realizing Pinker was just a placeholder for 'vaguely social-scientific book that promises to explain in excruciating detail some major aspect of being human, but fails to attain the needed rigor,' of which I have seen a dozen come and go since I was myself an undergraduate. That nothing original is likely to befall you is either a comfort or a curse, once you recognize it, but very intelligent people can go for a very long time without realizing it.

13.7.15

There are three active possibilities for Go Set a Watchman. In order of likelihood:

1. Everyone forgets about it in a few years. By all accounts, it is not a good novel, and what makes it notable is only the fact that it differs in tone and characterization from To Kill a Mockingbird. The book is properly considered either as juvenilia or as something close to a last novel/posthumous novel/unfinished novel. If the former, people will recognize that it is not particularly interesting on its own: Trimalchio to The Great Gatsby, or "The Waste Land" before Ezra Pound edited it. If the latter, it will go into the same camp as The Last Tycoon or Hemingway's last novels: for completists only. I mean, Jane Austen has juvenilia and posthumous fiction, and no one pretends like either is part of her mature work.

2. It kills off To Kill a Mockingbird in high school curricula, and thus kills the novel altogether. The complications to "Atticus" as a character deprive him of his moral force in Mockingbird, and it's an awkward thing to try and explain to cynical teenagers. The novel can't serve as a simple (not to say simplistic) morality tale, and it becomes a historical curio of a particular time and approach to racial issues, a mid-20th century Uncle Tom's Cabin, to speak of once-influential works on race in America that are no longer widely read.

[A wide distance of probability]

3. The attractions of a novel wherein the narrator is a thinly disguised version of the author who moves to New York City and discovers that even the nice-seeming southerners are terrible racists and her father's not the hero she once thought he was, is a perfectly fine sentiment of the moment, no matter how cliché it is in all details. It feels more real, which is to say dirtier and more degrading of the human spirit, and thus will be taken for the 'adult' version of the children's story. Assuming she is of sound mind (a big assumption, where all people with opinions have vested interests in those opinions being true), then it seems to indicate that Lee didn't understand the value, importance and meaning of her own book. This would hardly be the first time such a thing were true, but it'd be sad all the same.

11.7.15


I'm not sure what, not quite 20 years ago, sent me off on the idea that I should spend my life reading too much and otherwise attempting to work my way through culture (I blame my parents), but I am fairly certain that today's experience was the sort of thing I had in mind: reading the first chapter of Foucault's The Order of Things, an extended interpretation of Velazquez's Las Meninas, and not needing to refer to the image because I have looked at it enough times to be able to follow the interpretation without additional reference to it.

9.7.15

The Civil War has been coming up with some regularity in the news, and it occurs to me that I've never offered here my view of it, which is in some respects different than the standard view. I base this off of reading my way through my library's collection of Civil War books as a child, and a few years thinking about constitutions, civil war, and the rule of law during my academic career.

In a nutshell: the Civil War was 'about' constitutional issues, where slavery is the driving force behind those issues. Rather than deflecting or diminishing slavery as a cause, it amplifies the extent to which the South acted in bad faith. That is to say: the southern states seceded because they wanted to establish independent political control over their own territory and did not want to/in actuality recognize the authority of the United States federal government to do so. The reason they wished to have this control was to maintain slavery. But, taken as independent arguments, constitutional reasons alone served as a spectacular violation of the Rule of Law: the southern states were happy to leverage strong federal control when it suited their purposes, but once it no longer appeared that they would be able to dictate national policy, they picked up their ball and left rather than engage in the work of politics; they were so convinced that any defeat would have been so unjust that the prospect of facing one was intolerable. (I am of the belief that Lincoln would have been considerably more moderate on slavery had the South not radicalized the issue; the constitutional arguments may have been pretexts to the South, but they were nearly the whole of the point for Lincoln.) That is to say, the South was wrong on slavery, conveniently and deeply hypocritical on the Rule of Law, and--most offensive to a certain type of southern sympathizer--guilty of bad form.

One should probably also note that this bad faith tendency--"I might lose, and if I do, I will impugn the legitimacy of the people who disagree with me. In fact, I will pre-emptively impugn their legitimacy in the hope this will increase the chances of my side winning."--has unfortunately become one of the default modes of handling political and social disagreement.

20.5.15

A Long Post About Lost, Prestige TV, Comic Book Movies, and the Serialization of Everything

Lost

It's clear that my relationship to genre cultural properties has changed in the last ten years, and given enough time, it's clear that Lost is the reason for that change. I had a much larger appetite for them before, and almost none now. It's not entirely clear what exactly about Lost took me in that direction. But for need of a lot of something to watch, I've returned to it. I had a disparate reaction on this occasion to two of the most famous emotional beats in the story, and it might be worth exploring why. "Not Penny's Boat" had all of the resonance it did the first time. "The Constant" was a tremendous disappointment. This isn't surprising, since they were told in very different ways.

"Not Penny's Boat" is genuinely affecting because it builds over the course of several episodes before resolving. Desmond begins to get flashes that Charlie will die, and tries to save him; Desmond gets a particularly tempting vision and almost lets Charlie die. For his part, Charlie has to come to accept that his death is going to come soon and there's nothing he can do about it. The emotional punch comes because he gets to pick the cause for which he dies: he's found something worthy of that kind of sacrifice. Making that resolution changes him, frees him, to become someone who can be bold and active and self-sacrificing. He is free because there's meaning in his death. That allows him to be calm enough to save Desmond and communicate the important message that only he knows and then die.

"The Constant" is not genuinely affecting because it contrives its own problem and provides too pat of a solution. The "problems crossing between times" bit is introduced no earlier than the very end of the previous episode, and does not reappear again for another whole season (where it claims one single victim, conveniently not a major character). The life-threatening problem is given to two characters, one of whom only exists in order to pass along crucial exposition about the threat and how to get around it, and the problem for the main character is completely resolved by the end of the episode. This serious problem also, surprisingly, affected no one else involved in any travel to or from the island, and none of the numerous people shuttling back and forth between the freighter and the island for the rest of the season. The episode exists only for its endpoint--Penny and Desmond getting in contact with one another--and the rest is simply a means of getting the viewer there. It's emotional manipulation rather than storytelling, gesturing at rather than being something great.

The difference is that one of these is a storyline for a character's arc in a narrative, and another is a cool episode.

The difference between these matters because their reception says something about how we understand stories at this moment. Big cultural properties are (again) serialized: movies, books, tv shows are often now guaranteed out a certain distance into the future; like previous serials, they encourage looking at individual parts closely and wholes very rarely, and then only from certain narrow perspectives: we ask what the stakes are, whether the stories are internally consistent, whether they are, in each piece, entertaining. As a whole we might ask whether the story is worth the time invested, but these are judgments of the whole, rather than "we might omit 40 minutes/three episodes/200 pages without great loss" because the economics inform the structure of the content, rather than the content dictating anything at all. No one complains very much about mid-season episodes of a tv show that spin their wheels, because, as goes the usual critic's line, these come up of necessity in every season: even if there are only six episodes of plot, there need to be 13, or 22, or 24 episodes, so something has to fill that time. That you probably need to have seen all the other Marvel movies to understand the new ones is considered a feature, rather than a bug, and anyway, that's just how they make movies now.

When I was much younger I remember watching a few soap operas (hey, they were new tv in the summer, back when that was unusual), and particularly General Hospital when Luke and Laura were first re-introduced. Luke had been a bad guy at first, but now he was a good guy, because the show needed him to be one. The catch with a soap opera is that none of the stories can ever end, because the show must go on five days a week, and should ideally involve the same popular characters or actors. Consequently narrative logic must go out the window--filling out the time is the only thing that really matters--with characters changing allegiance and motivation all the time, and all the loopy narrative flourishes one associates with soap opera as a form.

Regular tv shows, movies, and multi-part books, lacking plot to fill out the allotted time and space, now indulge generously in melodrama and soap-opera antics (*paging George R.R. Martin*). Lost would disappear as a show if people answered each others' questions and didn't just go hiking off into the jungle every time they thought about doing something: the story needs these distractions as it needs the various other fancy-looking macguffins because the story can't hold out on its own. (As an experiment: try to summarize season 5 of Lost in one sentence. It is either impossible to do, if you try to include any of the details, or quite easy--"Ben tricks everyone into coming back to the Island, except in 1974"--which only exposes how superfluous much of it is.) Everything else is plot machinations for their own sake: Daniel and Charlotte get a romantic attachment which is entirely told and never shown, because Daniel needs some stakes for his own arc and the love of his life being threatened can provide them. Don Draper cycles through alcoholism and various women either because that's what he does or because it provides a few episodes of him looking seductive and cool and then a chance to blow it all up at the end, which will happen every season at fixed times that just so happen to coincide with the major parts of the season. (Friends, by contrast, didn't bother to get Ross and Rachel together, or break them up, at any significant moment in seasons 2 and 3 (February Sweeps, probably, but at least not as predictable). Then again, when you're a cultural phenomenon, you can do whatever you want and be certain you'll get a rating. That the MCU movies don't attempt this is probably also notable.) Loki gets himself captured in The Avengers, and it hardly matters whether his plan makes sense because it provides for Character Exposition and A Chance To Heighten The Themes Of This Movie. When movies, books, tv, engage in these kinds of stalling tactics, they kill actual organic character growth, but do so simply because the economics of the situation demand it. The skeleton shows in so many places now. One only has to look for it.

The flip-side of the soap opera-ization of things is that individual moments mean a lot less. No one soap character's great scene or arc means a lot when it's stacked up against others of wildly varying quality and changing motivation. Wasn't that time Don stopped drinking and recognized his problems really inspiring? Does "The Suitcase" mean less as an episode now that you know absolutely nothing about Don changed as a result of it? "The Constant" is a great episode if you have no idea what's going to happen to Desmond. Once you know it only serves to torture him with a bit of happiness before his life is ruined, how does it seem?

The single biggest factor contributing to the Golden Age of TV is the fact that no one can conceptualize of a creative model that works differently than this ("tell a fixed-length story until it's done and then end it?"). It used to be only comic book nerds that were suckers like this: the "even numbers are good" joke about Star Trek movies is an admission that 50% of them are bad; the hype for the new Star Wars movie seems to have forgotten that four of the six were disappointments. Now people are prepared to hold out hope for years and against all evidence that the results will be worth it, or that mediocre installments (the third of any series) are just the price we pay for the good ones.

Oddly, people seem more ready to see this in comedy than drama, where no great tv show of the last 15 years goes without criticism for losing its edge (some never regaining it) and where everyone can see the problems of The Hangover or Pitch Perfect making sequels that largely repeat the plot of the original films. The Office, for example, had one great idea--bring Jim and Pam together slowly, then keep them together--from which they got three seasons of very good tv. Once that idea was done, though, there was nothing behind it, try though they might to recreate that magic--more shocks and twists than one might reasonably expect of a faux-documentary about a paper company. Why did the show stay on the air through a number of increasingly bad seasons to the point that it poisoned its own legacy? Economics.

This matters because critical standards can do something to help explain and interpret what we're seeing. The overwhelming tendency of American aesthetics for the last hundred years has been to divide out entertainment from art, to push one lower and the other higher, until there is very little room in the middle. If a property is meant to be entertaining, this serves to silence all possible criticism; if it is entertaining, it has served its purpose. Art is reserved for those things that aim at something more complex than entertainment. But since these are the only two categories, things end up wildly misplaced: the bad Marvel movies are intended only as entertainment, the good ones compete with the best of film. Prestige tv often cannot reasonably be said to attempt to entertain, so it must be art, after a fashion. But there are trashy attempts at being artistic--Rain Man, Braveheart, the run-up to Oscar season in any given year--and joke-factory workplace sitcoms that transcend being merely entertaining (Cheers, for example). Attempting to be art does not necessarily make art; having the trappings of art isn't art, either; that no one has yet recognized The Dark Knight Rises to be the highest of camp is a great disappointment to me--it looks and feels and acts like a deadly serious movie but has a scene with a football player outrunning a sinkhole as it forms. That place between entertainment and art is so often vacant because no one recognizes it even exists.

Sorting this out is a lot of work. So much easier to let it simply wash over you, and like or dislike to your heart's content, and not worry about it. That, however, is a recipe for knowing what date "Untitled Female Superhero Movie" will open on ten years from now, because the identity of the superhero matters less than knowing that the right market segments will be served in a timely manner.