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August 1, 2007

What's farting got to do with it?

John Stoehr

One of the great things about "Flyover" is that the four of us -- Joe, Bridgette, Jennifer and I -- share a lot in common but there's enough difference in our points of view that things never get dull. Case in point was Monday's post by our man in Montana (that's Joe). It was a thoughtful counterargument to a post I wrote last week.

My piece attempted, in a very ambiguous way, to connect a few changes occurring in the cultural landscape: the decline of newspapers, especially arts journalism at regional newspapers; the continued problems facing high art; the rise of amateur culture in the Age of Web 2.0 and its attendant attitude of anti-intellectualism; and a brain drain that I sense is taking place in newspapers everywhere.

Joe evidently felt this was doom and gloom. Perhaps it was. He also thought I was positing a position. I'm not sure I was, but maybe that's a moot point. The fact that my "Connections" post was able to draw so many intelligent comments, including Joe's, tells me there's something here and something important worth debating.

Among Joe's many thought-provoking notions was one conceiving mass media as a historical anomaly. I think he's right. I also think he's right in saying the problems we are facing as a culture stem from expectations established during mass media's long, long reign: We were the gatekeepers for a while, but now we're not. We used to force readers (or viewers or listeners) to pay attention to advertising as we enticed them our stories, pictures and design. But that's slowly losing its potency.

My editors kill me a little bit every day when they talk about developing a good "package," a word that to my ear rings with nostalgia for the good old days of mass media. Despite evidence to suggest people who read our website, a shift in reading patterns that my editors want to see more and more of, don't give a rat's ass about the "package" -- they want stories and their multi-media accoutrements.

Celebration or conquest?
As I have noted in previous posts, the bottleneck has indeed been broken, as Joe reiterates, and now the floodgates are open. "This is bad news for bad artists and second-rate journalists. It is good news, I tend to believe, for the truly skilled, the deeply passionate, the innovative, and the informed among us," Joe wrote Monday.

But here is where Joe and I part ways: Joe says these recent cultural changes, particularly the rise of Web 2.0, are cause for "celebration." I see the point. But celebration? Maybe. I guess I'm too skeptical about the forces of capitalism seizing control of these changes.

Indeed, the rise of a wireless, on-demand world is only beginning to reshape our consciousness and the opportunities for the innovative are only beginning to present themselves. This shift have historical precedent. The social upheavals of the 1960s were also thought to have brought America to the gates to a new world. As Morris Dickstein wrote, however, in the classic survey the literary works of that time "Gates of Eden," the gates to the new world remain closed, for now.

"The cold war, the bomb, the draft, and the Vietnam war gave young people a premature look at the dark side of our national life, at the same time that it galvanized many older people already jaded in their pessimism," Dickstein wrote. "Both the self and the world proved more resistant than the activism of the sixties dared to hope, but the effects of a decade of struggled are there to be seen."

Dickstein's "world [that] proved more resistant" than expected is partly, I would wager, the incredible adaptability of Corporate America. It recognized the shift in cultural sensibility and moved to exploit it. This is covered by Thomas Frank in his brilliant analysis of the last half century, "The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism":

" ... For some, Ken Kesey's parti-colored bus may be a hideous reminder of national unraveling, but for Coca-Cola it seemed a perfect promotional instrument for its 'Fruitopia' line, and the company has proceeded to send replicas of the bus around the country to generate interest in the counterculturally themed beverage.

He continues: "Nike shoes are sold to the accompaniment of words delivered by William S. Burroughs and songs by The Beatles, Iggy Pop, and Gil Scott Heron ("the revolution will not be televised"); peace symbols decorate a line of cigarettes manufactured by R.J. Reynolds and the walls and windows of Starbucks coffee shops nationwide; the products of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft are touted as devices of liberation; and advertising across the product category sprectrum calls upon consumers to break rules and find themselves."

And: "The music industry continues to rejuvenate itself with the periodic discovery of new and evermore subversive youth movements and our televisual marketplace is a 24-hour carnival, a showplace of transgression and inversion of values, of humiliated patriarchs and shocked puritans, of screaming guitars and concupiscent youth, of fashions that are uniformly defiant, of cars that violate convention and shoes that let us be us ..."

Read on for "Fart jokes: a very brief literary history" and "A change in consciousness"

The 1960s, mass media and the rise of hip consumerism have had an enormous affect on how we understand ourselves. It's not uncommon to find someone's idea of history -- the images in their minds of what it looked like -- coinciding decade by decade with the history of TV. This understanding holds that after the 1960s, everyone got cool, but before that, they were all squares.

The 1950s were also described as puritanical, with the tacit understanding that 1950s squares and their Puritan forebears didn't like cool things like music and sex. But this wasn't true. Puritans talked about sex quite a lot in quite explicit terms. It was only during the Victorian Era, in the 19th century, that Evangelical Protestantism and its prudishness (no sex, no drink, etc.) reigned over the American middle class.

And this middle class liked to demonstrate how refined it was. As Paul Boller writes in a popular history called "Not So!" "Respectable people, according to evangelical ideals, were serious, conscientious, and hard-working, and concerned themselves with the 'higher' things of life. Victorian Americans ... were eager to show off their carefully cultivated refinement and good taste, especially to European visitors who might be inclined (as many European were) to think of Americans, especially Westerners, as crude, ignorant, loud-mouthed and ill-mannered."

Boller goes on to cite an American whose delicacy was offended by the title of Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock."

"Shakespeare ... is obscene!" this person went on to say.

What this suggests to me is that things like sex were not allowed in high culture during this time. And I suspect this hasn't really changed much despite the shifts in cultural sensibility ushered in by the 1960s.

I thank Joe for bringing up the topic of fart jokes. You see all kinds of trashy stuff in high culture, "The Piss Christ," for instance, but you don't see fart jokes like you used to. Farting is considered something more appropriate for TV and movies like "Norbit."

But fart jokes -- and other kinds of body humor not given its due in high culture thanks to the legacy of the 19th century American bourgeois culture -- have a long and distinguished pedigree, something we don't think about much these days. (Note: Stay with me here; these are funny and perhaps weird.)

Aristophanes' comedy called "The Clouds" starts with a bang. Strepsiades is woken up in the middle of the night after his friend, Phiedippides, lets fly.

STREPSIADES: ... Oh, damn and blast this war--

so many problems. Now I'm not allowed

to punish my own slaves. And then there's him--

this fine young man, who never once wakes up,

but farts the night away, all snug in bed,

wrapped up in five wool coverlets. Ah well,

I guess I should snuggle down and snore away.

Later, with Socrates, the philosopher:

SOCRATES: Oh you magnificent and holy Clouds, you've clearly heard my call.

[To Strepsiades]

Did you hear that voice

intermingled with the awesome growl of thunder?


STREPSIADES: Oh you most honoured sacred goddesses,

in answer to your thunder call I'd like to fart--

it's made me so afraid--if that's all right . . .

Later on, Socrates attempts to explain where thunder comes from:

SOCRATES: Weren't you listening to me? I tell you,

when the Clouds are full of water and collide,

they're so thickly packed they make a noise.

STREPSIADES: Come on now -- who'd ever believe that stuff?

SOCRATES: I'll explain, using you as a test case.

Have you ever gorged yourself on stew

at the Panathenaea and later

had an upset stomach -- then suddenly

some violent movement made it rumble?

STREPSIADES: Yes, by Apollo! It does weird things --

I feel unsettled. That small bit of stew

rumbles around and makes strange noises,

just like thunder. At first it's quite quiet --

"pappax pappax" -- then it starts getting louder --

"papapappax" -- and when I take a shit,

it really thunders "papapappax" --

just like these Clouds.

SOCRATES: So think about it --

if your small gut can make a fart like that,

why can't the air, which goes on for ever,

produce tremendous thunder. Then there's this,

consider how alike these phrases sound,

"thunder clap" and "fart and crap."

From "The Miller's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales." The description of the effete parish clerk by the name of Absolom:

A merry devil, as true as God can save,

He knew how to let blood, trim hair, and shave,

Or write a deed of land in proper phrase,

And he could dance in twenty different ways

In the Oxford fashion, and sometimes he could sing

A loud falsetto to his fiddle string

Or his guitar. No tavern anywhere

But he had furnished entertainment there.

Yet his speech was delicate, and for his part

He was a little squeamish toward a fart.

Later on, Alison, the carpenter's cuckolding wife, plays a trick the parish clerk. Absolom insists Alison give him a kiss. He waits outside her bedroom window. He finds something other than her lips.

The night was pitch dark, coal-black all about.

Her rear end through the window she thrust out.

He got no better and no worse, did Absolom,

Than kiss her with his mouth on the bare bum

Before he had caught on, a smacking kiss.

His eyes still closed, the scene gets worse:

He jumped back, thinking something was amiss.

A woman had no beard, he was well aware,

But what he felt was rough and had long hair.

Later still, the parish clerk returns with a piece of hot iron from the blacksmith to exact revenge for Alison's trick. At her window, he again asks for a kiss. This time her lover, Nicholas, has his turns, responding to Absolom's call for Alison ...

"Speak, for I don't know where you are, sweetheart."

Nicholas promptly let fly with a fart

As loud as if a clap of thunder broke,

So great he was nearly blinded by a stroke,

And ready with his hot iron to make a pass,

Absolom caught him fairly on the ass.

Perhaps the worst (as in disgusting) use of body humor is Ben Jonson's satire, "On the Famous Voyage" from his "Epigrammes." The poem comes at a time during London's Restoration when the city was growing beyond its capacity to deal with people's shit, literally. The voyage in question is a boat trip down a ditch. The narrator's voice is mock epic. Instead of a heroic trip by a honored hero, we see ...

The filth, stench, noise; save only what was there

Subtly distinguished, was confused here

Their wherry had no sail, too; ours had none;

And in it two more horrid knaves than Charon.

Arses were heard to croak [that is, fart] instead of frogs,

And for one Cerberus, the whole coast was dogs.

Furies there wanted not; each scold was ten;

And for the cries of ghosts, women and men

Laden with plague-sores and their sins were heard,

Lashed by their consciences; to die, afeard.

Jonson, as is his wont, is oblique. One of the characters in his satirical play "The Alchemist" is far more direct.

"I fart at thee."

A change in consciousness
What does the literary history of the fart joke have to do with issues of mass media, high culture and Web 2.0? I'm not really sure, but going over the history sure is fun.

Perhaps one connection is that the influence of the marketplace, as Dana Gioia noted in his Stanford speech, affects how we think, how we feel and how we understand ourselves. Just as the tendency of capital is to consolidate, the tendency of those in control of the greatest share of capital may end up figuring out a way to make this moment in history pay off in surprising and detrimental ways.

During this moment of transition, as Joe rightly calls it, we need to be careful about what the outcomes will be. We can't be too busy celebrating how emerging technologies are setting the table for new and improved art and arts journalism and only later discover that no one's getting paid to do either.

We all know that professional journalism isn't defined by a salary. A person can be a highly professional and unpaid. But we also know the value to a community of the presence of someone committed to reporting, writing, observing and just bearing witness to that community's art. And that someone has to be paid to do it well.

The problem facing journalism is the problem facing the music industry -- control of the product is being wrested from the hands of the producer by the introduction of new technologies, i.e., Web 2.0. A billion songs are illegally traded every month. That's probably low. The industry is hemorrhaging money. It can't do much more in the face of peer-to-peer networking than scare poor college kids with legal action.

And that's not really doing much good. This latest report from the London Guardian shows that fewer people, or 33 percent, who were surveyed were concerned this year about being prosecuted for illegal downloading. Some 42 percent cited legal action as a deterrent last year. Nearly half said they don't mind downloading illegally. That makes downloading a mainstream activity. Being mainstream means it's as morally OK as divorce.

David Shumway, in this piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, observes that the fracturing power of downloading feeds on itself: the more fragmented a musician's audience by downloading, the less likely they will be to pay for the music.

"In popular music, the decline of a genuine mass audience has meant that it is harder and harder for a performer to attain recognition beyond his or her niche. Those whose recordings now top the charts usually seem to be the least culturally significant, often lacking either the musical distinction or the political commentary that one can still find among less popular performers. But the bigger issue is that even this music reaches a small fraction of the total audience. One could argue that the term 'popular music' itself has become outdated because no style of music reaches a broad enough audience. My undergraduate students typically know the music from my college years -- the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, and so on -- but it is often difficult to find more than a few who are all familiar with the same current releases. As a result of this audience fragmentation, popular music and its performers have lost the cultural centrality they once enjoyed, and that means that fewer people are interested enough to pay for the product."

Hollywood is also freaking, but for other reasons. Piracy is an issue, but more problematic is that people just don't care about movies like they used to. There is much statistical evidence to suggest reasons why, but the fundamental problem, as Neal Gabler writes in this piece headlined "The movie magic is gone" for the LA Times, is a fundamental shift in cultural consciousness. I'll quote him as some length:

"[Movies used to] provide a common experience and language -- a sense of unity. In the dark we were one. Now, however, when people prefer to identify themselves as members of ever-smaller cohorts -- ethnic, political, demographic, regional, religious -- the movies can no longer be the art of the middle. The industry itself has been contributing to this process for years by targeting its films more narrowly, especially to younger viewers. In effect, the conservative impulse of our politics that has promoted the individual rather than the community has helped undermine movies' communitarian appeal.

"All of this has been hastened by the fact that there is now an instrument to take advantage of the social stratifications. To the extent that the Internet is a niche machine, dividing its users into tiny, self-defined categories, it is providing a challenge to the movies that not even television did, because the Internet addresses a change in consciousness [my italics] while television simply addressed a change in delivery of content. Television never questioned the very nature of conventional entertainment. The Internet, on the other hand, not only creates niche communities -- of young people, beer aficionados, news junkies, Britney Spears fanatics -- that seem to obviate the need for the larger community, it plays to another powerful force in modern America and one that also undermines the movies: narcissism."

That change in consciousness is at its heart a change in the mode of audience engagement with movies (or music or newspapers). The consumer is now in control. He can make his own movies (YouTube), his own music (MySpace, purevolume) and his own publications (Blogger, Blogspot).

Again, Gabler: "But these sites are arguably not only diverting viewers whoe might be attending the movies, they are replacing one of the movies' functions: If stars' lives are superseding movie narratives, audiences are superseding the stars."

The computer then is less like the piano than it is like the early phonograph of the 19th century, an innovative piece of technology that would go on to transform our cultural consciousness. It transformed how we hear (and perform, compose, conceive, understand and interact with) music. The technologies of Web 2.0 are doing the same. The difference is that we know now what the Victrola did. We can't know how the internet's transformation will play out yet.

Posted by John Stoehr at August 1, 2007 7:31 AM

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