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April 30, 2007

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema

Via Continental Philosophy -- and for a limited time only, probably -- access to the Slavoj Zizek documentary The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. Haven't seen it yet but look forward to doing so.

I've occasionally watched a film and wondered, "What would Zizek say about this?" Someone should create the Zizek Movie Data Base (ZMDB).

Posted by smclemee at 10:19 AM | Comments (4)

April 29, 2007

The Best Medicine

Last week I wrote a column, a piece for Bookforum, and a review for Newsday. Yet I am still behind -- with a very bad cold having kicked in almost immediately after meeting the last deadline. (In short: If you are reading this and I owe you some work, please realize that I'm doing the best I can.)

Lifting my spirits somewhat was our viewing of Flushed Away, from Aardman, the studio responsible for Wallace & Gromit. Evidently the movie did not do well when released here last year. I don't even remember it coming out, and we're longtime fans of Aardman. In any case, Rita ordered the film on Netflix, and now I am convinced that the singing slugs deserve their own musical. Their choreography is also brilliant:

Good news: The Aardman short film Creature Comforts will soon be reborn as a series. There is a lot to say for the curative power of comedy when you are ill, and Aardman's mode of anthropomorphizing really does it for me.

(On consideration, it seems to me that Creature Comforts is actually whatever the opposite of anthropomorphizing would be. It doesn't humanize animal so much as animalize humans. If there is a word for that, I can't think of it.)

Posted by smclemee at 2:29 PM | Comments (4)

April 28, 2007

Feeling Freakosophical

The paperback edition of Freakonomics contains a postscript that mentions my review of the hardback edition. That piece ran two years ago this weekend. In the course of listing various comments that were not entirely enthusiastic, the authors refer to

a Newsday review, by Scott McLemee, which chided the book's "style of evasive lucidity"; [and] a review in Time magazine, which said that the "unfortunately titled Freakonomics" has "no unifying theory ... which is a shame." (In fairness to ourselves, we should note that both the Time and Newsday reviews were largely positive.)

Now, it's true that I seldom reread my work after it is published, and tend to forget what I've written pretty quickly once the last revision is done. (Forward ever, backward never.) But this reference to the review as "largely positive" certainly came as a surprise, for I do have some recollection of the book, and it is not a fond one.

I never did see the review in Time, but thanks to the magic of the Internet am able to revisit my own thoughts on the book. Good luck to any publicist trying to extract a blurb-able nugget from this:

Any 10 pages of Freakonomics would be the equivalent of a really good newspaper article explaining, say, how to analyze the results of the sumo playoffs in Japan in order to determine whether some wrestlers took a fall. Or how the revelation of secret passwords on a radio program damaged the Ku Klux Klan's ability to collect the dues that made the Invisible Empire a successful business. Or the rise and fall of popular baby names.

But as each idiosyncratic inquiry gives way to the next, no logical pattern takes shape. A reasonably bright 12-year-old might feel condescended to by some accounts of the analytical tools that Levitt uses. One of the most important, the statistical method called regression analysis, is explained only two thirds of the way through the book. The writing is so smooth that it seldom gives traction to anything worth calling a concept, at least beyond the notion that the conventional wisdom is often wrong (itself a piece of conventional wisdom).

Unlike the reviewer at Time who found "no unifying theory" in the book, I attempted to suss one out:

My sense is that Levitt does have an idea, which goes something like this. The market is (as one school of economics has it) a rational system in which price serves as a signal allowing the exchange of information about the availability and best allotment of resources. But other kinds of information are also part of the market -- and some forms of information are scarce, hence valuable. Thus, there is an incentive to keep that information scarce. Someone armed with the right insights, however, could account for seemingly irrational aspects of the system by finding the regularities beneath the surface.

Elements of this idea are dispersed throughout the text like bits of marshmallow embedded in a gelatin dessert. And the effect on mental nutrition is comparable.

So it is a pleasure to read Kieran Healey's review of the book in Sociological Forum, more or less corroborating my surmise. At this point I'm left trying to figure out just how negative a review of Freakonomics would have to be before the authors couldn't dub it "largely positive."

(crossposted from Cliopatria)

Posted by smclemee at 6:52 PM | Comments (3)

April 26, 2007

Nature Will Castigate Those Who Don't Masticate

I almost never look at the comics section of the newspaper, large portions of which just leave me very confused.

You would need to do advanced research in narratology even to begin to explain strips like Mary Worth or Apartment 3-G in which -- and I do not think this is much of an exaggeration at all -- nothing ever happens. If a character decides to make a sandwich, it takes three months to complete the task.

And I do mean make it. Eating the sandwich would take longer. Mary Worth is very thorough about chewing. She may well be a follower of the late, great Horace Fletcher.

That said, I have of late become become a great enthusiast for The Comics Curmodgeon. While I'm probably the last to know about this, that's okay. It just means there is a large archive to roam around in.

In case I am only the next-to-last, you might want to start with this entry.

Or this one.

Posted by smclemee at 7:18 PM | Comments (3)

You Kids Get Off My Berlin Wall

Two radio spots that aired when I was a freshman in high school (that would be Wills Point High School, aka "Home of the 1965 State AA Football Champs," which can now also proudly boast that it is "ranked as 'academically acceptable' under the Texas Education Agency") have stuck in my head for the past -- oh good lord, this can't be true -- thirty years almost. And to think Kieran feels old.

Both ran on the "album oriented rock" station in Dallas, i.e., the one that played "Stairway to Heaven" every day. One of them had Andy Warhol endorsing the Talking Heads. I'm pretty sure it was More Songs About Buidlings and Food. Imagine hearing "Freebird" and then, "Hi, uhm, this is Andy Warhol and, uhm, I think Talking Heads are really great...."

But the other ad really brought the culture clash: an announcement that the Sex Pistols would be coming through on tour. For years I have been puzzled by this memory, given that the only show in Texas anyone ever seemed to discuss was the one at Randy's Rodeo in San Antonio (several hundred miles away) where Sid hit somebody over the head with his bass.

Somehow I forgot that the Pistols actually did play Dallas. That ad was neither a trick of my memory nor a sign of how badly organized the tour must have been. And it turns out that a video from that show of "Holidays in the Sun" is available online, which I put up now for all the other geezers in the house:

(crossposted from CT)

Posted by smclemee at 4:24 PM

April 25, 2007


Mark Fischer, national organizer of (what's left of) the Communist Party of Great Britain, gives an interview to the BBC on the meaning of terms like "Stalinist," "Leninist," "Menshevik," and so forth. He does it all with admirable precision, but also good humor.

Definitely worth a listen -- particularly for when the interviewer asks him about Titoism and he just breaks down laughing.

Posted by smclemee at 11:47 AM

And Then He Reviewed Another Book

My column today is part of a new campaign by the National Book Critics Circle. It has a slightly different contributor's note this time:

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. He has reviewed books for The New York Times, Newsday, The Boston Globe and The Nation, and he takes George Orwell's description of the book critic as "a man pouring his soul down the drain a pint at a time" rather personally.

Very true. Be that as it may, I'm doing my little bit for the cause, and hope it gets some circulation among librarians and university-press folk.

UPDATE: This is a good sign. Librarians are the organic intellectuals whose role is least appreciated. They give a lot of thought to media of all kinds, and they play an important part in organizing and distributing knowledge. I wrote that column with a very strong sense that getting them on our side is, to use the old expression, an urgent task.

(Would I be saying this if my wife were not a librarian? Let's just say that it is a complexly overdetermined matter, and that with the benefit of hindsight marrying one does seem like destiny. Also, as I've said many times, the single smartest thing I've ever done in my life.)

MORE: Links at Romenesko and ArtsJournal. This is all very encouraging.

Posted by smclemee at 6:12 AM | Comments (3)

April 24, 2007

Perpetual Motion, Here We Come

Not as a gloss on "taping bacon to the cat" but as the product of an entirely unrelated matter for speculation comes the following item, via Evan Hughes, which I present without further comment:
View image

Posted by smclemee at 11:30 AM

Well Now, There You Have It

You could listen to talk radio for a week, or you could just read this sentence:

Decades ago, little George Soros decided to take over the world so he got rich through the capitalist system which he wished to destroy by paying John Kerry to fake his wounds and forge his service records in Vietnam so Kerry could run for president one day while leaving lots of people POW-MIA in Vietnam so that we'd all stop being afraid of Marxism so that literary critics from France could infect the minds of the young with Cultural Marxism and pornography via tenured radicals in English Departments and organizations like MoveOn.org and Media Matters and the Em Ess Em so that the Great International Communist Islamofascist Conspiracy to Dominate the World could move ahead by means of feminists evolutionary biologists atheists and liberal Christians who want to ban Christmas so that everyone will be gay and that way they'll all be feminized and passive and won't be able to do anything but stand around when the Islamic Bomb is built which it will be any moment because Saddam really did have WMDs in fact the only supply of WMDs in the entire world that the terrorists could possibly get their hands on and the Islamic Bomb is being built right now by Syria Russia North Korea and China most of which are not Islamic countries but it's all the same thing anyway and everyone in the government from the Bush Administration to the Congress and all the way down the bureaucracy and the Em Ess Em knows this but isn't saying anything because they're too embarrassed and when the Islamic Bomb is developed it will be dropped on American cities and soon all those atheist liberal Christians will see oh yeah they'll see all right when they all have to wear hijabs and then George Soros will have won.

Sounds like a plan.

from The Vanity Press

Posted by smclemee at 6:03 AM | Comments (1)

April 23, 2007

"The nature of e-mail is such that verbal subtleties such as tone of voice or irony do not come across well," he later explained.

"Why, if I see anyone looking threatening, Asian, wearing black -- I'm going to shoot that sucker first and ask questions later," English professor Joel Wingard wrote in an e-mail exchange Tuesday that was circulated on the college computer network. "I'm going to drop into my shooter's stance, one knee on the ground, gun hand supported by the other hand braced by the other knee, and do what has to be done."

Such a fine line, sometimes, between clever and stupid....

Or between pedagogy and assholery, for that matter. See Margaret Soltan's account.

Posted by smclemee at 6:49 PM

Updating the Local Strangeness

Thanks to Maud Newton for informing her readers about my recent strange visitor. It seems that he has a fan base, albeit of the tongue-in-cheek variety. I'm told that he tends to loiter around Arts Journal, commenting at blogs. His recent appearance will have been his first here at Quick Study. Also his last.

Posted by smclemee at 6:28 AM

Continuing the Iggy-thon

Very odd: Iggy on French TV in 1977....

Posted by smclemee at 6:26 AM

April 22, 2007


Anthony Paul Smith says it's Iggy's sixtieth birthday. Try wrapping your mind around that one for a bit.

Here he is, from 1987, performing "I Wanna Be Your Dog" with Sonic Youth. A much better song than "Happy Birthday to You" in any case. More festive, for one:

Posted by smclemee at 4:31 PM | Comments (1)

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

Over the years, my interest in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis has more than once led to a moment of conversational awkwardness, when it turned out that the other party had been quietly distracted by the effort to figure out what the anti-totalitarian left had to do with taking peyote.

With time I have learned to detect the signs of struggle early, and so make haste to point out that I don't mean Carlos Castaneda, whose tales of cosmic shenanigans with Yaqui shaman Don Juan once played a big part in the counterculture.

Maybe they still do. I don't keep up. But the books remain in print -- even though it's long since been been proven that Castaneda's writings, while taken seriously as ethnography at one point, actually belong to the field of con-man studies.

Salon ran a long feature last week that extends the story beyond the debunking of Castaneda's tales that took place by the early 1980s. Scholarly fraud and metaphysical kitsch were the least of it, really. It is a story that ends on a somewhat Heaven's Gate-ish note.

There's also a BBC documentary covering the same material called Tales from the Jungle, now available in six segments here. The portions reenacting scenes from Castaneda's books are very cheesy -- which is to say quite accurate, in their way. I remember reading one of them in junior high and giving up because it was all so silly. But the will to believe is a powerful force; and there's always someone who will try to live on a diet of cheese during the quest to reach enlightenment.

(crossposted from CT)

Posted by smclemee at 4:25 PM

April 20, 2007

Petition in Support of AJC Books Editor

"The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's recent decision to eliminate its book editor position--and, possibly, its book review section--is demoralizing beyond words. The AJC's book section is one of the best-edited literary pages in the country. It provides Atlanta, which ranks #15 on the University of Wisconsin's list of most literate cities in the U.S., with a powerful and necessary cultural dialogue. Under the astute guidance of the section's editor Teresa Weaver, the books page has demonstrated an admirable commitment to both literature and nonfiction works which have grappled with some of America's most complicated issues and themes...."

read the rest of the petition here, and please consider signing it.

UPDATE: The first comment below is by a literary figure with a fascinating history.

Posted by smclemee at 8:01 PM | Comments (3)

The Lessons Learned

Among the top-ranking videos at YouTube this morning, nearly half (nine out of twenty) consist of Cho Seung-Hui's monologues as broadcast by NBC.

Good for Siva Vaidhyanathan for criticizing this decision at the MSNBC website. (See also his piece there on the "ill-conceived lessons" being drawn from the massacre.)

So what have we learned from this past week?

First of all, that when the Founding Fathers wrote about the need for a "well-regulated militia," it meant they wanted a free market in guns with no barriers whatsoever to access. ("Well-regulated" being an 18th century expression meaning "not regulated." The term "militia" is to be very broadly construed. Very, very broadly.) But such is stating the obvious.

Second, that if your mind is such a toxic waste dump that killing everyone in sight seems like a really good idea, by all means explain yourself on camera so that all the world can know. Because your thoughts will definitely reach an audience -- almost immediately, in fact -- via mass media that "well-regulate" themselves through a profound sense of social responsibility.

Finally, that it's really "cool and edgy" to make a video in which you perform one of the plays that Cho Seung-Hui wrote and post it online right away, while the bodies are still in the bags. Man, that shit is hilarious! But you'd better hurry, because otherwise you'll only be the second or third person to do it.

(crossposted at CT)

Posted by smclemee at 12:02 PM

April 18, 2007

Divided Mind

In August, I wrote a profile of George Scialabba on the occasion of the appearance of the first collection of his essays, a volume called Divided Mind. Unfortunately it was not so easy for many readers actually to find a copy of the book, which came out in a small edition. But a couple of days ago it was listed by Mark Oppenheimer as one of the great titles of 2006 overlooked by the Pulitzer Prize committee.

Now the book is available in PDF at George's website, which is good news. I must issue a warning however. Brace yourself before clicking the link I am about to give -- for while the artwork on the cover is certainly very striking, it is likely to induce nightmares, or at least the heebejeebees. Okay, then, you have been warned: here it is.

Posted by smclemee at 9:31 PM | Comments (2)

A Report from the Department of Strange Online Behavior

It seems as if the expression "taping bacon to the cat" might be drawn from the idiolect of some strange subculture you'd rather not know anything about.

To the best of my knowledge, however, it is not. It refers to an actual, literal activity -- something I do not condone, merely report:


Backstory here. I believe this comes under the heading of "activities nobody would think to do if the possibility of putting photographs of it on the web did not exist."

Posted by smclemee at 11:53 AM | Comments (1)

Unstuck in Time

While working on my column about Kurt Vonnegut this week, I had a dream in which I filed a draft and was surprised to notice that it ran to just two paragraphs.

In real life, "The Eternal Sophomore" is not quite that short. But at some point I did decide to leave a lot of stuff to moulder in my notes and make it fairly compact.

While mentioning that most readers encounter Vonnegut in adolescence, I didn't go into my own experience of doing so -- reading Slaughterhouse Five in a frenzy of concentration throughout a boring day at Wills Point High School (recently named "academically acceptable" by the Texas Education Agency! yay!) circa 1980, for example.

But on reflection, that was not my first encounter with Vonnegut -- which seems to have come at roughly age 10, when I had absolutely no idea that was taking place. Sometime in 1973 or '74, I saw a film on television (PBS it turns out) that was a satirical, science-fictionish account of someone living in a future or an alternate world where there were, among other things, "suicide parlors" one could go to for a quick exit. It struck me as really funny and strange, but I never caught the name of it.

Years later, I found a paperback with the script of Vonnegut's Between Time and Timbuctu (based on some of his short stories) and immediately recognized it. I have no idea how well it would hold up after 35 years. Unfortunately it is not available on DVD or otherwise, that I can tell. It seems as if there might be enough interest for this to be worth someone's while.

For another moment in Vonnegutian cinema:

Moving paratactally....see also this item by Jerome Weeks

Posted by smclemee at 7:01 AM

April 17, 2007

The Way We Live (and Die) Now

At BookTruck.org (a group blog for librarians), Mimi notes that with the nightmare at Virginia Tech, mass-media coverage has been almost entirely conditioned by the new-media "surround":

The public spaces on the internet served as the most important arena for exchange of information on the events yesterday. Almost every news story cited a Facebook or Myspace page or a livejournal entry as a source. The Wikipedia entry and discussion on the event hashed out validity of sources and the semantics of tragedy. And then the jarring cell phone footage on Liveleak was among the realest indicators that this gruesome event had actually happened. The events as documented on the social web became the authority.

MTV was among the first to track web reactions, and the Washington Post has a fairly full blog roundup. Mydeathspace.com, a site that tracks online profiles of the deceased, has links to Facebook and Myspace profiles for many of the victims at Virginia Tech. The New York Times is soliciting comments and photos of the victims. After 9/11, the print edition of the NYT ran photos and profiles of victims, which at that point felt immediate and personal--it's clear now that rapid coverage is essential, and that anything not interactive would be useless. These past two days have made it ever so much more apparent that our social lives on the web are intractable, crucial, and part of the news and the historical record.

See the original post for various links that I wasn't able to copy.

This sort of moment bears noting, because it is otherwise so very easy to take it for granted as we grow accustomed to the shift of media "ratios" (to clip an expression from McLuhan).

(crossposted from CT)

Posted by smclemee at 7:50 PM

April 16, 2007

Schlock Jockey

I was sick of the whole Don Imus thing about two minutes into it, and did not expect willingly to read a long discussion of the subject. But Phil Nugent's commentary is on target. The rhythms of his rant are always so beautifully well-modulated:

The talk radio world, one that Imus worked hard to shape, is one where overpaid white guys who did well in the voting for the title of "Class Clown" at their respective high schools sneer at blacks, women, gays, what have you, in a dismayingly self-congratulatory tone. The self-congratulation comes not from the cleverness of their material--nobody could be that self-deluded--but from the fantasy that they're speaking truth to power and taking on The Man by being, and here hold tight while we flash back to the thrilling days of 1993, "politically incorrect." Their natural audience is people who hate their lives and, at least for a few minutes a day, like to imagine that they're outlaws by listening to some peabrain on the radio make fun of, say, homeless people or the victims of the 2004 tsunami. This stuff is not hard to do. Lest you think I'm being self-righteous here, let me make it clear that I know how easy it is to do funny ethnic voices and make fun of gay stereotypes because I've done it, usually very late at night, often on car trips when I was trying to keep myself and someone else awake, always when my cerebral wattage had reached the draining point and I couldn't think of anything to say that would actually have counted as funny. In my defense, nobody was throwing millions of dollars at me at the time, and if they were, I like to think that I would have differed from the Imuses and the Opie and Anthonys of this world in that I would have made some effort to actually earn the money. (I remember that when Howard Stern began a short-lived tenure of having his show broadcast in New Orleans, he held a press conderence, and one of the local reporters asked him how he would compete with the hilarious, daring wild man talk guy who was already doing a New Orleans morning show, and whose name escapes me. Stern, who'd clearly never heard the local guy's name, said something like, what's he do, like a Southern guy and a black guy and a gay guy, all the while doing high-school level impersonations of a drawling hick, a Stepin Fetchit type, and a nelly dude, which did indeed sound exactly like the local guy's repertoire of funny voices. I remember that the New Orleans reporter was stunned by this, and seemed genuinely unaware that there was some yokel doing the same basic act at some radio station in every city in America.)

On the other hand, that means Imus won't be gone for long. He'll be on satellite radio or Fox. His agent will be shopping a memoir around to publishers no later than the end of this week, probably.

So it goes. To continue:

If there was any wisdom in his decision to peg his attempt to keep his job on his attempt to prove himself a "good person," it can only be that, as unlikely as that claim sounded, it was easier to believe that he was on some level a good person than it was to believe that he could ever, ever have become funny and talented. Dim and self-obsessed as ever, he never seemed to grasp that the people calling for his job weren't doing it because they were not yet convinced of his goodness. They were doing it because they'd concluded that there was a real chance that they could get him fired, and he'd make an impressive trophy.

....He won't starve, and he probably won't even be gone for as long as some of us would like. But at least his admirers will have to live with the memory of him spending the week crawling on his belly, whimpering and licking every boot he came across in his pathetic bid for forgiveness, a most gratifying commentary on just how much of a ballsy anti-P.C. outlaw the jowly cretin and most of his ilk really are. No, the public excoriation and humilation of Don Imus will not rid the country of racism. But surely a country where the Don Imuses are never publically excoriated and humilated would be a worse place to live.

Now let us never speak of him again.

(crossposted from CT)

Posted by smclemee at 2:07 PM | Comments (3)

An Entertainment for Patrons of Quality

We spent the past weekend immersed in the world of Titus Andronicus -- also known as "Shakespeare's batshit crazy play," at least around here. Most dramatic performances fade into the background within a short time, but my wife and I have been discussing Titus for several days. Popular in its own time, it is seldom performed now, though there is an excellent version from 1999 available on film, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. The production currently being staged at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington is spellbinding and horrific -- though I'm not at all sure that I agree with the effort of Gale Edwards, the director, to lend the play some hint of morally redeeming value. Arguably, it has none.

(from last week's column)

Posted by smclemee at 7:58 AM

April 11, 2007

Who's the Mack?

Every once in a while, I will read something that seems uniquely precise in describing aspects of my own condition. A piece from early last fall by Jerome Weeks -- at that point book critic for the Dallas Morning News -- was very much a case of that happening:

As Mark Twain observed, anything you're not obliged to do is play. Anything else is work. And as a book journalist, one is obliged to race after the Media Now-Now-Now - what critic David Denby once called "information without knowledge, opinions without principles, instincts without beliefs."

What's more, book culture may seem a dwindling, quaint endeavor to advertisers in mad pursuit of illiterate teens and at a time when arts coverage in general is getting dumped or fragmented into a million Web sites. But there are hundreds of thousands more new books released per year than TV shows, sports programs, movies or CDs. For all the talk of the death of print, more people have access to more books now than at any time in history.

That's amazing but it means keeping up is a full-time sprint. A book columnist must read in gross tonnage, read hastily in trains, planes and lunch lines and read books no one should bother with. One can endure a film or a concert for two hours; reading a pointless book can take days. Recall those dreaded high school assignments: A bad book can seem like a prison sentence.

I know, I know. You spend your time heroically putting out fires and saving lives in the ER. All of this reading doesn't really sound like work to you. But it is. Otherwise, we wouldn't pay researchers, law clerks, teachers or librarians.

OK, so we don't pay them much....

This was writen as a farewell column at the Morning News, but the editors there wouldn't print it -- a gutless decision, even for the Morning Snooze, and one more sign of how bad things are. Instead, it ran at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, which over the past year or so has become the inside-baseball site for American literary journalism.

Weeks now blogs at Book/Daddy (think "mack daddy of books"). He just gave an interview to LitMinds, in which he mentions being "in development" with an idea he has for a new kind of TV show about books. Sort of a cross between Stephen Colbert and Bernard Pivot:

The inspiration came partly from frustration over the less than zero that commercial radio and cable TV do with arts and literature in America -- compared to European media. You can target educated, affluent viewers, but once channels like A&E and Bravo get bought by bigger media companies, they start aiming for the same wide, illiterate, American Idol audience everyone else does. You could probably make money with such a book show, but for the media guys, it'll never be enough money.

....Literature does not always have to be treated as a BookTV snoozefest. Books and wit and rewarding journalism are not incompatible it would seem. Canadian TV has Open Book, an amusing show with an actual comic actress, Mary Walsh, as host to a weekly ad hoc book club. Sort of Bill Maher but with guests who've done the required reading.

....Because I don't live in Manhattan or LA and I don't lunch regularly at the Four Seasons with the big media dogs, no one's paying attention. I may have to try shooting a no-budget prototype with a webcam or something.

Great. More unpaid work.

Well at least it's an option now. No need for it to look like cable-access show from 1983, and the audience could be very large, if not network-TV huge.

Unfortunately a pitch line like " a cross between Stephen Colbert and Bernard Pivot" probably won't help him raise a dime, but it's the best I can think up.

(crossposted at Crooked Timber)

Posted by smclemee at 6:22 AM | Comments (1)

April 10, 2007

Teenage Wasteland

What synchronicity....One day after that emo item, and totally by chance, I come across the great short film of teenage alienation The Snob (1958).

It's one of the Centron "mental hugiene" films. You can download it here.

One commentator points out that The Snob was directed by the creator of one of the classic low-budget films:

It not only was directed by Herk Harvey, the director of the horror classic "Carnival of Souls," but it also stars the amazingly affecting Vera Stough, the Meryl Streep of Lawrence, KS. Stough (who later went on to act professionally, in Hollywood and elsewhere) stars as Sarah, an academically successful student at her high school who remains quietly contemptuous of her fellow students for not taking life as seriously as she does; the other students scorn her snobbery, while her parents are quietly puzzled by it and attempt gently to get Sarah to change her ways and reach out a bit to her peers. The film has a typical Centron open ending, with Sarah bursting into tears before her schoolmates at a party next door and rushing into the yard when they cannot understand her alienation. This is one of the very few mental hygiene films that is genuinely moving....

All the more so because some of us will identify with Sarah and think it's the pressure to adapt that is her real problem. As another viewer puts it:

Excellent example of a confused society, clearly showing how it attacks and tries to destroy what it doesn't understand. Film depicts brutal attacks on a young intellectual woman who has been singled out as a nonconformist. Even her own parents conspire against her. She suffers the typical abuses from those who cannot understand her constructive attitude and superior IQ. They, on the other hand, can be seen undertaking activities that serve no productive purpose. They go on to demonstrate an obvious inability to do something as simple as select a sandwich. Does the young woman go on to greatly benefit the ignorant masses, perhaps with major breakthroughs in a scientific endevour? Or does the constant persecution and emotional pummeling drive her to a life of despair, making her goal become diabolical revenge as a major corporate embezzeler who opts for a life of crime and apathy? As this film asks, what do you think?

I'm voting that she goes Beat. Anyway, it's a great little movie. Sarah would be about 65 now and chances are she turned out okay. As for the fates of Biff and Skippy, or whatever their names are, who cares?

Posted by smclemee at 6:00 PM

April 9, 2007

"It's Short for Emo-tional"

As if the good people of Grand Forks, North Dakota don't have enough to worry about, a local news station has alerted them to the menace of a mutant subculture:

This is tone-deaf even by TV news standards. Even someone who will never see 40 again (yours truly for example) can tell that at least some of the material presented here as typical of "emo culture" has obvious satirical intent.

Members of the subculture rank themselves on an "emo scale"? One where you "get more points if you cry a lot" and "win the jackpot by committing suicide"? Granted, lifestyle reporting is not exactly a positivistic discipline. But come on, folks, surely you can be a little more rigorous about evaluating sources than that.

Henry Jenkins cites this at Confessions of an Aca-Fan as "a textbook example of the ways that youth subcultures get misrepresented on television news and the ways that adult anxieties about kids who don't look, dress, and act 'normal' get turned into hysteria by misreporting."

He dissects the typical failures of competent reporting embodied in this segment. And he takes the whole thing seriously for its role in fueling moral panics. Worth a look.


Posted by smclemee at 7:40 PM | Comments (4)

April 7, 2007

Famous Frogs in Rehab

Following the death of Jim Henson, the career of Kermit the Frog took a long detour into "a life of sex, drugs, and alcohol," reports Cosmopoetica. So am I the last person to have heard about this?

On the other hand, it led to his best work in decades. Check out Kermit's cover of the Radiohead song "Creep" in particular.

Posted by smclemee at 9:57 AM

April 6, 2007

Greetings, AndrewSullivan.com Readers!

Thanks to a cursory nod from Andrew Sullivan last night, there will probably be a spike of traffic here today. "Now that it's gotten to him," says a web-savvy friend, "I predict we'll see someone writing a snarky essay for Slate or Salon on the topic in the next week or two. You may get your 320kbps*900 of fame after all." Gosh, it's all I ever wanted, and more!

My vlogging debut was a one-off affair, recorded in one take, that took all of about two minutes of effort. And yet at this rate it is going to have more effect than twenty years of writing.

Like the man says says in Ecclesiastes: "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

Yeah verily, dude. Yeah verily.

Posted by smclemee at 6:47 AM | Comments (2)

April 5, 2007

True, That

Nick Reville: "If libraries didn't already exist, there'd be no way they could ever come into existence now. Can you imagine telling the publishing industry that the government was going to pay to set up buildings where they gave away their product for free?"

(Via Christopher Hayes)

Posted by smclemee at 1:08 PM

Freaks and Geeks

Harry Brighouse may have stirred up a hornet's nest at Crooked Timber by saying that Freaks and Geeks was the single best show on American television in the past twenty years.

But surely he is right about the bizarre misreading of one episode by Jake Kasdan, one of the former directors of the show. In the show in question, one of the early-adolescent "geeks" manages to start dating the girl he has adored from afar, only to discover that she is actually a vacuous Reaganite yuppie larva.

According to Kasdan, the audience is supposed to feel frustrated by this -- as if the kid has suffered some kind of defeat:

....he discovers what the rest of us have known from the beginning -- that she is a shallow nitwit, utterly unworthy of his time or attention. So, he loses. The audience's longing to cheer for him is frustrated.

But Kasdan is wrong. We were delighted that Sam discovered the true nature of the object of his desire. Not because it made him happy, exactly, but because his reaction to it showed that he knew himself, and [it] bode well, very well, for the future. He learned that his friends mattered more to him than she did, that he was, in the nicest possible way, too good for her, and got a hint that the constantly unreassuring message that he and Bill got from his parents that when they were older there'd be girls who would like them might, after all, be true. We, at least, were happy for him.

Exactly right. I don't think anyone who hasn't seen Freaks and Geeks can imagine just how beautifully developed the characters were. We've watched the show three times now -- first when it aired, then a couple of times since Rita got me the DVD edition as a birthday present a few years ago. The writing and acting were extraordinary, and it's safe to say it's something we'll revisit in due course.

I wrote about Freaks and Geeks for Newsday when it was on the air (though quite obviously doomed) and also did a column about Undeclared, which had some of the same writers and actors.

Posted by smclemee at 11:08 AM | Comments (1)

Watch the Parking Meters

Not long ago, Revolution, the newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, announced that it would soon be running a special issue about its leader, Chairman Bob Avakian.

Some of you cynics out there might be thinking, "Isn't that like publishing a special edition of the Bible about God?" That is totally inappropriate. The Bible is a book, while a newspaper is a newspaper, and that distinction will exist even after the end of class society.

Anyway, the special issue is out and it's...well, special.

We go swiftly to the world-historical stratosphere and linger in its bracing ozone:

There has never been a leader like Bob Avakian in this country. Never one who has so consistently and so deeply confronted and grappled with the deepest questions before people...and never one who fought so hard and so systematically to involve the people themselves in that grappling. Beyond that, this leader belongs in a deep and real way to the people of the world: at a time when the "science of revolution" demands a leap in its understanding in a number of crucial realms, he has stepped forward to fill that great need.

Can't help thinking of Eugene Debs, who said that he would not lead the masses into the promised land even if he could, because that would mean someone could lead them right back out again. ("I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks," he also said. "When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.") But to continue:

We cannot allow a situation where the oppressors have a sharper understanding of what Bob Avakian represents than the people who hunger for a different, better world!

Yes, I'm sure that's all they ever talk about.

Posted by smclemee at 7:06 AM | Comments (6)

April 4, 2007


Very grateful to Ellen Heltzel (of the Book Babes) for the item at the National Book Critics Circle blog Critical Mass about my column today, which discusses Robert Cawdrey's pioneering but long-forgotten dictionary from 1604.

Not too surprised that she notices some of the sexual lingo that I cited. When you say "Puritan," the notion of repression comes automatically to mind.

But there's pretty good evidence that their reputation as fiercely antisexual killjoys is quite mistaken -- a point first made, so far as I know, by Edmund Morgan in his article "The Puritans and Sex" (1942) and shored by more recent work.

They wanted it kept in its "proper" (marital) place -- no big surprise there, of course. But in sermons and treatises, they were perfectly willing to compare spiritual bliss to its carnal analog.

(Crossposted to Cliopatria)

Posted by smclemee at 5:03 PM

That Dog is Smart

In which my metavlogging is metavlogged....
Gevalt! What an ugly word. Makes "blog" sound euphonious.

Posted by smclemee at 3:26 PM

April 3, 2007

A Sentimental Ditty That Melts My Heart

Can't say much about the video here....But chances are at least a few of you will enjoy hearing "Kill Yr Idols" again -- a reminder of the era when Sonic Youth didn't seem like an ironic name for the band.

The recording is from an EP that came out circa 1985. Or so the geezer seemed to recall....

Posted by smclemee at 7:21 PM | Comments (2)

April 2, 2007

Depth Takes a Holiday

The lighting is somehow worse in the YouTube broadcast than it was in the original recording. It also cut off the last couple of seconds. (After Althouse cackles, I said something like, "See, she agrees.")

While it is Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism that serves as a prop in the video, I actually also had Baudrillard's Fatal Strategies in mind when deciding whether or not to do it. It more and more seems to me as if Baudrillard was, in a lot of respects, Lasch's evil twin.

Fatal Strategies, published in 1983, is arguably the last book in which Baudrillard's cultural theory is still engaged in an interesting dialogue with other work, in particular the Frankfurt School. Here's an extract from a good summary of FS by Douglas Kellner.

This text presented a bizarre metaphysical scenario concerning the triumph of objects over subjects within the "obscene" proliferation of an object world so completely out of control that it surpasses all attempts to understand, conceptualize and control it. His scenario concerns the proliferation and growing supremacy of objects over subjects and the eventual triumph of the object.... The process of growth presents a catastrophe for the subject, for not only does the acceleration and proliferation of the object world intensify the aleatory dimension of chance and non-determinacy, but the objects themselves come to dominate the exhausted subject, whose fascination with the play of objects turns to apathy, stupefaction, and inertia.

At the risk of simplifying things a bit too far, I think one can read the term "subject" here as meaning simply "consciousness," while "object" would in this context would mean "technology," more or less. Other connotations overlay each term. But insofar as Baudrillard is turning a "dual-ist" metaphysics into a "duel" between subject and object, he is doing so with the mass-media landscape in mind. (That's the OK Corral where said shootout is taking place.)

To continue:

....reflections on the media entered the forefront of his thought: the TV object was at the center of the home in Baudrillard's earlier thinking and the media, simulations, hyperreality, and implosion eventually came to obliterate distinctions between private and public, inside and outside, media and reality. Henceforth, everything was public, transparent, and hyperreal in the object world that was gaining in fascination and seductiveness as the years went by.

In Fatal Strategies and succeeding writings, the object dominates or "defeats" the subject. The "fatal strategies" suggest that individuals should simply submit to the strategies and ruses of objects. In "banal strategies," "the subject believes itself to always be more clever than the object, whereas in the other [fatal strategies] the object is always supposed to be more shrewd, more cynical, more brilliant than the subject." Previously, in banal strategies, the subject believed itself to be more masterful and sovereign than the object. A fatal strategy, by contrast, recognizes the supremacy of the object and therefore takes the side of the object and surrenders to its strategies, ruses and rules.

Which is, frankly, where I start to get worried. What Baudrillard calls "banal strategies" are things that seem to me incredibly valuable -- that is, forms of art, politics, thought etc. in which it is taken as a given that the media are "extensions" of the human, over which we as human beings have some final authority, both because we created them and because we can think. This is humane optimism.

But Baudrillard -- who was neither optimistic nor all that humane -- sees the relationship as a standoff in which each side grows more and more like the other, but in which the object has some hidden reserve of power that gives it an edge. For Lukacs, human relations become reified ("thing-ified") and emancipation comes from breaking through the crust of alienation to restore human subjectivity to its rightful place. For Baudrillard, that's just stupid. (Banal, he says.) The best option is to accept that the object-world is going to win.

How does this apply? Well, by making this video, I am arguably engaged in the fatal strategy of giving in to a medium that really bothers me. Trying to criticize it, yes. But also succumbing to it in the process.

It was fun to do, I have to say. Then again, maybe fun is how the crystal exacts it revenge.....

Posted by smclemee at 3:19 PM | Comments (7)

April 1, 2007

We Have a Winner!

Having over the past two months or so carefully excluded from public view sundry offers involving penile enlargement and/or teenage Russian babes-in-thongs, this humble blog has just posted its 100th comment.

The comment-- found here -- was a suggestion by The Constructivist that my experience as theoretician, youth organizer, and sole known cadre of the Vanguard Workers Revolutionary Marxist-Leninist Labor Party USA (Bolshevik-Reconstructed) might now be put to good use as a member of the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party, which is, I believe, a rotten bloc of Mensheviks and liquidationists.

Normally, of course, I would scorn a rotten bloc of Mensheviks and liquidationists -- even if it does announce itself as an avatar of revolutionary disgust (the one healthy political emotion):

Disgust with the corporate triopoly of Democratic-Green- Republican politics in the United States and its craven enablers in the American mass media. Disgust at the intellectual creamed corn served up by American universities and their military-industrial masters. Disgust at the pollution of our air and groundwater, at illegal war and corporate pillage, at the immiseration of the vast majority of the planet's sentient life, at the evisceration of international law, and, most of all, at the insufficient disgust of people who condemn these things somewhat less vehemently than we do. For those people are all that stand between us and a truly radical transformation of something or other.

One can't help wondering if WAAGNFNP is not, for all its seeming opposition, actually part of the problem.

Be that as it may, no hardened Bolshevik will fail to do entry work in a centrist organization when the oppotunity presents itself.

Provided I am allowed to sell old copies of Projectile (the quarterly "theoretical supplement" of Proletarian Hammer newspaper) at public meetings of WAAGNFNP, then we may begin to engage in talks leading to fusion. As it were.

Posted by smclemee at 3:15 PM | Comments (4)