Friday, March 31, 2006

Remember remember the Fifth of November ...

... Gunpowder, treason, and plot!

Saw V for Vendetta last night, one result of which is that I now have that rhyme running endlessly through my head. "I see no reason why gunpowder, treason / Should ever be forgot."

I wasn't sure what to expect, especially considering I have not read the original graphic novel. I knew the broad strokes -- a dystopian post-apocalyptic England set twenty-odd years in the future, in which a fascist-religious party has seized power and rules with an iron fist. Into the mix comes a vigilante in a Guy Fawkes mask determined to bring revolution to England and throw out the totalitarian regime.

This being the Wachowski brothers' first major project since The Matrix trilogy, I was expecting a lot of flash and style ... and certainly wasn't disappointed on that front. Among other things, the film is a pretty big hunk of eye-candy, with many shots and sequences (perhaps unsurprisingly) very reminiscient of The Matrix. Plus, the character of V is voiced by Hugo Weaving, aka Agent Smith, so there are some resonances there as well.

On the balance, I thought this was a good film, and independent of academic considerations, I really enjoyed it -- I suspect it's one of those films you'll either buy into and let it push your buttons, or instinctively resist and end up hating it.

The simple enjoyment factor is not what I'm concerned with, however ... I do think that this is a film that should be talked about. It is by no means a a straightforward indictment of the Bush Administration, as some critics have interpreted it: though the basic framework has been retooled such that the "apocalypse" of the original series, which was a nuclear war, is now the implosion of the "war on terror." The global state of affairs in the film -- in which England has been purged of "undesirables" and the U.S. has devolved into civil war -- is pretty specifically rooted in the current Iraq war. The suggestion (never stated explicitly) is of an untenable escalation of hostilities to the point where the western powers overextend themselves and collapse. Into the vacuum in England steps the quasi-Nazi "Norsefire" party, who are essentially allowed by the people to establish a regime of fear and intimidation replete with Orwellian surveillance, concentration camps and gestapo-tactics.

The key element of the film, and what makes it worth discussion, is the figure of V himself, who enjoins the people of England to recognize that "something is wrong with this country" and throw off the fear that has allowed the regime to maintain total control. From what I understand, the film is not nearly as nuanced as the graphic novel (big surprise), and the filmmakers cleaned up V so that he lacks the nastier qualities he posesses in the original. Still, there is enough ambivalence in his character to make this film worth a watch and to make it a point of discussion.

There are a significant number of problems I have with the story: first and foremost is the suggestion that revolution and change are necessarily violent. V's tactics are ruthless, and he acknowledges his own identity as, in part, a monster. If history teaches us anything, it is that the more violent the revolution, the more violent the backswing; one only has to look at events like the French Revolution to see how quickly they become their own antitheses. Arguably, the most profound change comes with non-violent but inexorable pressure like that exerted by Gandhi in India, or the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. And there is a climactic moment of this sort in V for Vendetta, but it is capped by a massive explosion.

There is also the suggestion that torture is a somehow clarifying, purging experience.

And I'm pretty certain I'm uncomfortable with the embracing of Guy Fawkes as a great hero and martyr.

On the other hand, it is these very ambivalences that make the film interesting to me -- if nothing else, it is a point from which to start reconsidering language and symbols reified and emptied of referents in the service of power, and the ways in which fear becomes a political tool in a massive game of bait-and-switch played out in the White House press room. In an odd way, I think this film makes a suitable companion piece to Ian McKellen's Richard III, in which Shakespeare's play is reinvented along the lines of an alternative history that sees a rise of fascism in 1930s England. Richard's oily right hand Buckingham plays the fear card at a crucial moment that facilitates the seizure of the throne:

Marry, my lord, lest, by a multitude,
The new-heal'd wound of malice should break out,
Which would be so much the more dangerous
By how much the estate is green and yet ungovern'd ...

At any rate ... a film, I think, well worth seeing. And more importantly, worth talking about.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Things that were never a factor in Ontario

From one of the several new posts we receive over email every day here at MUN:

"Campus Enforcement and Patrol has discovered a large piece of whale vertebrae in a snow bank adjacent to the Arts and Administration Building. Anyone missing this piece is asked to contact CEP."

Yes. I read that twice before it registered. A large piece of whale vertebrae.

No wonder whales are facing extinction. What kind of hope does a species have when it gets drunk, wanders inland, and leaves significant portions of its bone structure in snowbanks?

At least they don't get rowdy and pick fights. That would have to be one big-ass paddy-wagon.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Snow Day

I'd like to think that this is winter's last gasp, but I fear that might be speaking too soon ... but at least I'm getting a half-day off (so far) out of it. I'm learning -- slowly, but I'm learning. DO NOT wander out of the apartment without checking all weather sources and notice boards! Yes, I have finally clued in to the fact that this university is actually quite resonable about shutting things down in the face of unreasonably inclement weather.

So here I sit, cozy with coffee, until the next notice to be posted at eleven o'clock, and thinking that I have been delinquent this past week with my blog. But without anything much on my mind this morning except the conflicting annoyance with weather / delight at a morning off, I figured this was an ideal time to do some blog housekeeping. I haven't been very good at updating my list of links, largely because it involves going into the template and mucking about with the code ... but I think I've hit critical mass, and it is necessary to make some changes.

All things being equal, it's not a monumental change or anything, but there are a few things I want to draw everyone's attention to. The first is my colleague Brad Clissold's site -- Brad is doing some very cool research on the postcard as a uniquely modernist form of communication, and has a blog in which he invites people to contribute their own ideas/anecdotes/etc involving postcards.

I've also put up my new favourite blog, which my friend Matt turned me onto -- that of Michael Berube, a professor of English and Cultural studies at Penn State. Berube is a very prominent and well-published scholar, whose blog is both prolific and entertaining. He's listed under "The Liberal Media" as opposed to the academic links because much of what he writes is about the so-called "culture wars," in which the American academy is under fairly consistent attack from right-wing elements who believe universities to be hotbeds of anti-American Marxist terrorism sympathizers. Berube's principal opponent on this front is the somewhat hysterical self-styled defender of academic freedom David Horowitz, whose recent book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America has been making the rounds of late. The Professors is an extended screed against the supposed "leftist indocrtrination" to which the balance of academics ostensibly subject their students in the classroom. The book is composed of 101 profiles of liberal, left-leaning, leftist and Marxist professors ranging from Noam Chomsky (of course), Fredric Jameson, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Berube himself.

I'll post at greater length on Horowitz and his hysteria at a later date -- suffice it to say, Berube (who has frequently gone head-to-head with Horowitz) deals with all this with intelligence and, more importantly, a great sense of humour ... something Horowitz entirely lacks, and further cannot take even the slightest criticism without getting his back up. Very amusing to follow, in fact.

On that front, I've also posted some of my favourite websites that respond to the conservative domination of the American airwaves (liberal media, my ass). Most notable is Media Matters for America, aka Bill O'Reilly's nemesis. This is a great website that takes the various misrepresentations surfacing in the news on a daily basis and debunks them. It is a very carefully done, fair bit of reporting -- more often than eschewing commentary altogether and just providing the full transcripts for the readers' benefit.

That's all for now.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Some reads, new and old

I remember writing way back when, when my blog was still in its infancy and I was still new to Newfoundland (a newfie newbie, as it were), that I was in a reading rut. Not so much right now -- never mind the endless articles, essays, and parts of books that all get funnelled into whatever I happen to be writing, I have been running through a fairly large number of books for both teaching purposes and for my own pleasure and entertainment. I have been striking a nice little balance between books I love that I have been rereading, and new stuff.

I guess that this is one of the small payoffs of working through my various degrees and into this job -- both of my courses this semester have reading lists assembled to a large extent based on books I love. So I have had the exquisite pleasure of immersing myself back into narratives that were deeply affecting the first read-around, and have lost nothing for their familiarity -- quite the opposite, in fact. It is like renewing acquaintances with old friends. Here's Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice; the screechings of Mrs. Bennet and the wry interjections of Mr. Bennet, the obsequious pomposity of Mr. Collins and the imperious absurdity of Lady Catherine DeBourgh. I felt anew a sentimental triumph when Mr. Darcy rounds on Elizabeth in frustration and declares, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me and this subject for ever."

Too cool.

Or the surreal, nightmarish southern gothic of William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, where one is never certain where the nightmare ends and the reality begins, where the doomed Quentin Compson desperately tries to unravel the tortured tapestry of his family's history and the history of the South.

The haunted scarecrow faces of the migrants in The Grapes of Wrath -- Steinbeck's sustained howl of rage at the indignities visited by humans on one another, which is yet eminently hopeful in the depiction of community and commitment.

We begin Time's Arrow next week in my first year class, speaking of howls of rage. There's novel that loses nothing upon rereading: Martin Amis' backward narrative implicitly agrees with Theodor Adorno's statement that "there can be no poetry after Auschwitz" by running time backward -- from the death of a Nazi death-camp doctor, through a baffling world in which everything runs in reverse and where the world does not make sense until we are back in the camps ... and then the Germans call down the souls of the Jews from the smoke-filled skies to be made whole in the ovens, and where for the first time the doctor appears to heal his patients rather than inflicting wounds on them and sending them back out through the doors of the emergency rooms in which he worked under assumed names in America.

This was, I think, my fifth reading of Amis' novel -- and, having finished it just this morning, I am still in the haze of shock that my first reading gave me some ten or twelve years ago.

I have also recently had my first-ever encounter with Ian McEwan in the form of his most recent novel Saturday, which follows the events in a single day in the life of a London doctor; it is February, 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq and the day of the massive protest that marched through London. We follow the doctor as he runs errands and prepares for a family dinner, and are carried by his thoughts as he muses on the imminent war and the change in the world since 9/11. McEwan has a remarkable talent for depicting the mundane: though there is action and conflict at points, the most compelling parts of the novel (for me) are the quotidian details.

On a lighter and more humorous note, I've also recently finished Royal Flash, the second instalment of the "Flashman Papers," a series of historical novels that follow the eventful life of Harry Flashman -- war hero, raconteur, world traveler and acquaintance of kings, lords, ladies, politicians and generals. Decorated by Queen Victoria, known to the Duke of Wellington, Otto von Bismark, Robert E. Lee, and a host of other historical luminaries. Except that these papers are his personal candid memoirs: written in his eighties and not discovered until the mid-twentieth century, they reveal that Flashman was, in reality, a coward, a cad, a drunk, a womanizer and general rotter. Our hero cheerfully recounts his failings and his many escapades in which he unscrupulously stole, wheedled, lied, seduced, fled, and occasionally murdered his way through almost every major conflict and historical upheaval of the nineteenth century, and somehow managed not only to come through these rather terrifying adventures without revealing to the world his true nature, but actually comes out smelling like a rose and covered in glory.

In Royal Flash, good old Flashy gets himself embroiled in a series of German intrigues masterminded by no one less that Otto von Bismark himself. All seems bleak for our hero: but with his usual cowardly vim, he manages to flee danger whenever it rears its ugly head (though he does get caught up in some unavoidable swordplay), as well as add a few more notches to his already well-notched bedpost.

I was first turned on to these books by my friend Sean, and I have in turn gotten my father hooked. A lot remains to be read: Royal Flash is only the second book in a series now up to its twelfth instalment. That's a lot of fleeing from danger, drinking to excess and womanizing to get through ... but I'm sure our man Flash is up to it.

Friday, March 17, 2006

I wear my green on the inside

Well, here we are again -- a day of tricolour scarves, wigs, green paper leprechaun hats and green beer (when everyone who knows anything knows that the true colour of Irish beer is black).

Last year in my pop culture class, I gave my students a quiz when we started our unit on advertising and consumer culture -- two quizzes, actually, each of ten questions. For the first, I put up a series of ten images of brand name logos and told the students to identify them. As you might imagine, the entire class scored ten out of ten -- and were quite pleased with themselves. The next ten images were of people and things they should know ... Pierre Trudeau, Malcolm X, a trillium, as well as a handful of flags (the point of this exercise, as you have likely guessed, was to demonstrate how instinctual recognition of brand logos has become, whereas actual honest-to-god knowledge of stuff comes a bit harder ... not that being able to recognize a photo of FDR gets you into law school or anything).

The point of this is that one of the flags I tossed up was the Irish flag -- thinking that would be a gimme. But less than one third of the class recognized it ... at which point I shook my head at them and said "OK, everyone who got it wrong has to stay home on St. Patrick's Day this year," and some hearty soul in the back row shouted out his support with a "YEAH!"

At any rate, that incident stuck with me, and I gave my students a St. Patrick's Day quiz on March 17 ... a tradition I'm maintaining this year with the following quiz.

SO -- a score of less than 8/15 and you have to stay home tonight. Honour system here, people! No consulting Wikipedia!

1. What is the capital of Ireland?

2. Name one of the original four counties of Ireland (double marks for all four).

3. Name three Irish writers who are not James Joyce or W.B. Yeats.

4. In what year did the Easter Rising take place?

5. What revolutionary leader is famous for leading a French-aided uprising on the west coast of Ireland in 1798?

6. Fill in the blanks: “If you ever go across the sea to Ireland / It may be at the closing of the day / You can sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh / And watch the sun go down on ______________”

7. What is the name of Ireland’s mythical female incarnation?

8. What ecological catastrophe in the mid-nineteenth century caused massive emigration from Ireland and gave New York City a tradition of Irish cops?

9. What is the name of the political wing of the IRA? (double points if you also give its English translation)

10. What tasty mixture of stout and ale is also the nickname for the feared Loyalist paramilitaries that targeted Republicans between 1920-22?

11. What British parliamentarian and general is notorious for his brutal invasion of Ireland and his avowed intention to send all Catholics “To Hell or Connacht!”?

12. At what famous landmark outside of Dublin did U2 film their video for “Pride (In the Name of Love)”?

13. How do you say “Ireland” in Gaelic?

14. What was the name of the Republican splinter group that came to prominence in the late 1960s, and which is usually blamed for the “Troubles”?

15. What popular Irish proponent of Home Rule in the late 1800s fell from grace when his affair with married woman Kitty O’Shea was revealed?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

March Madness! Fredric Jameson over Stanley Fish, 102-97

I entered my first-ever basketball pool yesterday -- actually, my first-ever sports pool, period. At first, I protested that I know nothing about basketball, especially not NCAA teams. However, apparently I'm not unusual. This is an English department, after all ... not exactly what you'd call a hotbed of sports fans (outside of hockey and, since the olympics, curling). So some people have some unique methods of choosing teams. My friend Danine, for instance, is making choices based on the colours of team jerseys; someone else, on places he'd like to visit (so, Florida over Wisonsin, that sort of thing).

Me, I'm going with prominent English professors. Which schools have the big names? Well, they're taking through all the way, baby.

Indiana does well in my plan -- not so much because of profs, but I used a lot of books from Indiana University Press in my thesis, so they've got a good run. Penn State does well because they've got Michael Berube, but they come up against Duke in the Final Four, and, well, Duke's got Fredric Jameson ... on the other side of the tournament, U of Illinois gets carried to the final by Stanley Fish. It's a tight battle then between postmodern Marxism and reader-response Milton, but in the end The Jameson prevails.

At which point I will celebrate my victory in the pool with a glass of Jameson's Irish Whiskey.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


I was doing some work in the office on Sunday, and my brother messaged me ... and treated me to this image on his webcam:

Not as good as being there, obviously, but still enough for some serious entertainment. She does love to bounce in that device.

Friday, March 10, 2006

I have nothing to do, and it weirds me out

I have nothing to do right now. It's very strange. I have inadvertently contrived to arrive at about an hour and a half of non-activity, and it's giving me something like existential vertigo. I just handed back student essays and have completed the tasks most immediately at hand ... and in an hour and a half I'm delivering a paper for our ongoing departmental colloquium. I suppose I could rehearse it, but then I've already done that a few times and don't want to over-rehearse.

Very strange feeling, especially after a week of coming in early and working late -- working on, among other things, this very paper.

Nothing to do.

So it occurs to me that it's been a while since my last Morgan update:

Ain't she sweet? I think my favourite is the serious concentration she displays in trying to chew through her toy (sort of eerily reminscent of my brother trying to gnaw through a chicken wing after seven or eight beers), but I do rather love the Team Canada jammies. If my niece isn't the next Cassie Campbell, it won't be because of a lack of exposure to hockey paraphernalia in her formative years.

OK, I guess I'll look over my paper one more time: "Weapons, the Masses, and Destruction." Good or bad, I think I have a definite talent for titles. And between the film clip I'm showing and the slide show of shiny explosions, I think I can distract from any suckiness that might be present in the paper. Give 'em the old razzle-dazzle, that's my motto.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A morning complaint

I'd like to meet the person who's responsible for deciding that radio morning shows should involve a lot of talk, inane contests, manic hosts, and a lot of bad jokes rather than music conducive to waking up. Yes, I'd like to meet that person. And then I'd like to punch him in the face.

The breaking point came this morning as I was waiting on a left hand turn, when the guy talking (I won't grace him with the title of "DJ") made a joke about Billy Ray Cyrus getting on the gay cowboy bandwagon with a new song "Brokey-Backy Heart."

And as if that wasn't bad enough, he sang it.

Why can't morning DJs just play music? And if they must talk, instead of acting as if we lived in a ritalin-free world, why can't they be briefly comiserative of the fact that everyone's tired and in need of coffee, and then continue with the music?

Anyone remember the episode of WKRP in Cincinnati when Johnny Fever had left the station for another job and come back, but his regular slot had been filled so they gave him the 1-5am slot? And he spoke in dull, fatigued tones and went by the air-name "Heavy Early"? That's my ideal morning DJ -- someone who'll just accept that we're all still half asleep and greatly irritated by manic men-children who think crank calls and topical song parodies are the height of human wit, and who'll just play another fucking song.

So ends another brief foray into commercial radio. Back to CBC for me.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

I love living in Nifindlind!

OK, so to begin with: Larry King is a fucking moron. I'm sure we all knew this in some capacity or another, but tonight more or less sealed the deal. I would think that at the very least we should expect of veteran newscasters that they should be able to master basic pronounciation: "ou" is not pronounced as a short "i", nor is "a" -- ever! Now, I have been coached on the vagaries of how you say "Newfoundland," and spent many conversations correcting my mother when she said NewFOUNDland, and was myself chastised by a friend and colleague to pronounce the province's name along the same vowel sounds and cadence as UNDERSTAND. But it takes a particularly idiotic idiom to name the province as Larry King did this evening.

Of course, that only set the stage.

You know, when I was in grade two, seven or eight years of age, I saw images of cruel hunters clubbing cute baby seals and was outraged. I organized a protest and petition -- which did not reach outside my second grade classroom, but then I did not have quite the same professional connections I have today. Still, I was absolutely outraged at the sight of baby seals being killed, and absolutely earnest in my attempts to mobilize my fellow eight-year-olds.

I was eight years old. So what's Sir Paul McCartney's excuse for imbecillity?

Honestly, the man needs to get a job. And to divorce his idiot wife, who makes Yoko Ono look like a Rhodes Scholar by comparison.

I just finished watching, as many of you will have gleaned, Sir Paul's interview on Larry King Live vis a vis the seal hunt. To which our eminent Premier Mr. Danny Williams was the rebuttal witness. Sir Paul and his wife hoped that, in "bringing this amount of attention" to this event, they might bring pressure to bear on the Canadian government to end the seal hunt.

First: Heather, Sir Paul's wife, said of our new prime minister that "We've heard he's a very compassionate man." Um, OK. Seriously? Who told you that? I fear you are the object of a nasty hoax here, Heather ... I'm rather certain that the only reason Stephen Harper isn't out there clubbing baby seals himself is (a) his suddenly busy schedule, and (b) it would be a really bad photo op. He'll have to satisfy himself with strangling puppies at 24 Sussex. Off camera, of course.

Second: Heather is now officially the queen of hyperbole. She compared the seal hunt to, among other things, the killing of her own baby. Which in and of itself itself would be an excusably, if egregious, comparison, if she hadn't then attacked NL Premier Danny Williams for his entirely reasonable question to the McCartneys: i.e., you're attacking one form of subistence hunting, why aren't you making the same crusade against the hunting of white tail deer, of caribou, of the wholesale slaughter of cattle, pigs, and poultry? To which Lady Heather responded (again and again) that Danny what changing the subject.

No, you stupid bint, he really wasn't. He was raising the very real and relevant question of why you think baby seals are worth defending, and baby cows are not.

As ambivalent to my premier as I am, I have to say that he made a good show of it. He was measured and reasonable in the face of what was, for lack of a better word, a pretty damn shrill and strident opposition. Living in Newfoundland for all of seven months has made me aware of a number of issues facing this province, the whole seal hunt thing among them. And I've come to realize, much to the chagrin of my eight-year-old self, that the killing of baby seals constitutes a small fraction of the hunt -- smaller now then it was several decades ago, and ever shrinking. For those who watched the CNN special tonight: there was not a single clip of hunters clubbing baby seals. They were plying their brutal trade among the adults -- the reason being that the key point of the hunt is not the superciliousness of fur but the necessity of food. We're not talking about the selling of pelts to fashionistas in Milan, we're talking abour Flipper Pie -- a Newfie delicacy I have yet to partake of. We're talking about what happens in the fishing inudstry off season.

(As an aside: the premier of our province was interviewed tonight on American TV, and Larry King called him "Danny," as opposed to "Mr. Premier." Now, I can imagine that this was likely a strategy of Danny's media people, or possibly Danny himself, in the interests of maintaining his folksy persona, but I ask you: on CNN, is this how we want to play cricket? Dammit, he should have been "Mr. Premier").

I should point out: I'm hardly a candidate to go out on the floes clubbing seals, but I do recognize that our relatiomship with the natural world is way too complicated to let everything be. One of Danny's (Mr. Premier's) points is that the seal population has tripled in the last decade or so ... leaving them be would mean they would exterminate themselves as they depleted their food sources. Which brings us back to the observation that before Sir Paul and Lady Heather go after the seal hunt, they should perhaps protest hunts of deer designed to cull a population already artifically maintained by a human presence.

In the end, what I find most ironic about this affair is that the original excusion Sir Paul and Lady Heather took to find a photogenic seal cub took longer than expected because there were very few ice floes on which a helicopter could alight. That's right: the ice floes were few and far between this year. Hmm. Perhaps, rather than baby seals, do you not think there is a greater issue to throw your celebrity behind, Sir Paul? Global warming, perhaps?