Friday, December 10, 2010

Hitch v. Beck

Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair on the mendacity of Glenn Beck and his Tea Party acolytes:

Having an honest and open discussion ... is not just a high priority. It's more like a matter of social and political survival. But the Beck-Skousen faction want to make such a debate impossible. They need and want to sublimate the anxiety into hysteria and paranoia. The president is a Kenyan. The president is a secret Muslim. The president (why not?—after all, every little bit helps) is the unacknowledged love child of Malcolm X. And this is their response to the election of an extremely moderate half-African American candidate, who speaks better English than most and who has a model family. Revolted by this development, huge numbers of white people choose to demonstrate their independence and superiority by putting themselves eagerly at the disposal of a tear-stained semi-literate shock jock, and by repeating his list of lies and defamations. But, of course, there's nothing racial in their attitude …

This? This is what happens when the exceptionally intelligent critique the exceptionally stupid.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, it's six to five and pick 'em whether I will, on reading a Christopher Hitchens piece, (a) agree vigorously, (b) find myself rethinking a position I'd had previously, or (c) be enraged to the point of apoplexy. This happens to be an example of category (a), but you've probably figured that out. But even when he pisses me off (as he pretty much did 24/7 in the lead up to the Iraq War), I keep reading him, because such a sharp mind (that expresses itself in such enviable prose) deserves to be read.

I'm an atheist, but not so militantly as Hitchens that I don't find myself offering up a prayer each time I read about his ongoing fight with oesophageal cancer. If the disease claims him—as he candidly grants it probably will, statistically—we will have lost a voice that always elevated the level of political and social debate, unapologetically so, in a time when public discourse sometimes seems locked in a determined race to the lowest and most hysterical denominator.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Walrus, thirty years later

I had an ex-hippy Renaissance Lit professor in my undergrad that was prone to making statements like, "Elizabethan poets were the rock stars of their day, and had comparable influence on society—much like the way in which John Lennon single-handedly ended the Vietnam War."

I think it's safe to say that might be giving the man a wee bit too much credit, but it's hard to deny that Lennon had a profound influence on the world of which he was a part—enough so that one wonders what the next thirty years would have been like had he not been killed. What would Lennon have thought of the Reagan/Thatcher years? The meteoric snowballing of music technology? What kind of voice would he have been on the Bush/Blair imperial adventures? Would he have continued to be an influential, symbolic conscience of society? Would he have faded into post-pop star irrelevance?

Futile questions to ask, of course ... it is more interesting to see how he has functioned as an example for those musicians who have attempted to be our social conscience.

Following the lead of my friend Nikki over at Nik at Nite, I want to avoid posting "Imagine," as I'm sure we'll all hear that played or see it posted numerous times today. Instead, here's Lennon at his tripped-out best:

And here's my personal favourite Beatles' tune:

Friday, December 03, 2010

Oh, Danny boy ... the pipes, the pipes are calling ...

My televisual guilty pleasure for the last while has been the reboot of Hawaii Five-O. It's fun, and funny, and pretty and shiny. It also stars Daniel Dae Kim, formerly of Lost and Angel, on whom I have a serious man-crush. And Grace Park, late of Battlestar Galactica, on whom I have a, well, regular crush . But the show also has a recurring fun moment for Newfoundlanders, whenever Steve McGarrett introduces himself and then says, "And his is my partner ... Danny Williams."

I'm not sure what the news coverage of Danny's resignation as premier is like in the rest of the country, but here in Newfoundland it's pretty much all anyone can talk about. Which I suppose is fair enough—in a province that breeds big personalities, Danny has been one of the biggest. And he has a stratospheric popularity that most politicians only attain in their fevered imaginations. In response to speculation that his resignation was prompted in part by his approval rating "plummeting" to sixty-seven percent, one caller on CBC radio this morning drily reminded us that Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest are currently at sixteen and fourteen percent, respectively. Sixty-seven percent approval is what passes for public condemnation for Danny, who has spent the better part of his reign comfortably in the eighties.

That popularity does not however really reflect Danny Williams' deeply controversial nature: the flip side of his fearlessness, passion and determination to do right by Newfoundland is his reputation for being thin-skinned, autocratic, and vindictive. It is perhaps telling that the people who are most critical of him have tended to be those who have actually had to deal with him, and who have found themselves at the unpleasant end of his ire. But that, to hear testimonials on the news of late, is in fact a rather small minority.

I should probably offer the caveat here that I am not particularly well-versed in provincial politics, and hence cannot speak to the particulars and specifics of Danny's time in office. Anyone wanting a very incisive analysis of Newfoundland politics should check out Ed Hollett's blog, The Sir Robert Bond Papers. His post-mortem on Danny's resignation is particularly worth reading, as he offers a good breakdown of the appearances and realities of Danny's time in office.

I am myself more interested to see what happens next. When I read the Globe and Mail's article reporting on Danny's resignation, the most intriguing part was the comments section. A lot of Newfoundlanders posted, almost universally praising the departing premier. But the comments from people across the rest of the country were similarly glowing: one might have thought that the memory of Danny taking down Canadian flags at all government buildings five years ago would have stuck in people's craws still, but that event is either forgotten or has been eclipsed by the following years. Mainly, people praised him as a courageous politician with the cojones to stand up to Ottawa. Tellingly, some of the most frequently repeated comments were from people in B.C. or Ontario inviting Danny to come and run those provinces, favourably contrasting his efficacy against the incompetence of Gordon Campbell and Dalton McGuinty.

The second most common comment encouraged Danny to make the move into federal politics, usually framed in the sentiment that "we need more politicians like Danny in Ottawa!" I would dearly love to see him do this, but think it unlikely, for very similar reasons.

To be clear: it is not so much that I want Danny Williams as a player in Ottawa, as that I would be utterly fascinated to see how he fared. Really, it's a question of context: Danny could be as powerful and flamboyant as he has been, could in fact build his rather singular cult of personality, specifically because of where he is. One of the major reasons for his enormous popularity is that he essentially flipped the script for Newfoundland, and gave voice to the bone-deep pride its people have for their province, all the while being seen to stand up to the powers that be in Ottawa. He was fortunate in his adversary: his passionate advocacy for Newfoundland was best expressed in opposition to a cold, despotically indifferent Canada, and Stephen Harper obliged him by playing that role perfectly ... to the point where Danny had almost as broad a fan base outside Newfoundland as within.

The reason the prospect of Danny Williams entering federal politics fascinates me—and the reason why I think it's highly unlikely he will—is it would be interesting to see how he changed. On the larger stage, absent of his veritably Manichaean stance opposite Ottawa, he would lose much of the traction he had at home. Which is not to say he would not necessarily be a good politician—just that he would lose much of what made him "Danny" here in Newfoundland.

Of course, there is also the fact that he is hardly likely to receive a warm reception from the federal Tories, considering his relentless battles with Harper, whose apogee was undoubtedly his campaign during the last election to shut the Conservatives out of Newfoundland. Considering that Stephen Harper is even pettier and more vindictive than Danny himself, I would count the likelihood of him welcoming Danny to Ottawa at somewhere beneath absolute zero.

Ah, Danny—we hardly knew ye. Thanks for making politics interesting, if nothing else.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The gentrification of the living dead

I was expecting to enjoy Sunday night's premiere of The Walking Dead on AMC; I was expecting to be impressed. I wasn't quite expecting to be as blown away as I was.

Seriously: based on the first episode, this is a very good show. It hits all the sweet spots: it is beautifully shot, extremely well acted, and—above all—well written. In fact (as far as last night's episode is concerned, at any rate) it far exceeds the source material. I realize this assertion will be seen as heretical by the comic book / graphic novel crowd, given that Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead series inspires nigh-fanatical reverence. Having read the first volume of the series, I must confess to be less than impressed with it: it is good, but often somewhat simplistic and heavy-handed in its storytelling, and crams in way too much exposition. The premise is solid, as it is concerned principally with the psychological state of a besieged collection of survivors as they travel a post-apocalyptic landscape in search of safe haven. The serial nature of the ongoing story allows for a much greater exploration of the characters than a film typically does, though I found many of the various conflicts, and the characters involved in them, to be overwrought and melodramatic, and frequently rather contrived.

What's good about the AMC adaptation (among other things) is that it pares away a lot of the graphic novel's narrative clutter, and settles itself into a comfortable, unrushed pacing. The first episode, "Days Gone By," ran for ninety minutes and did not hurry the story at all (anyone whose preference in the zombie genre is a lot of action and frequent scares, this is not for you). It opens with a kinetic car chase and gunfight, in which deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) gets shot. Then, in what feels like a nod to the opening of 28 Days Later, Rick wakes up in a deserted hospital after an indeterminate time spent in a coma. The world without has ended, and he walks around in shock, past bodies stacked like cordwood in the hospital parking lot. His first encounter with the living dead are as pale, dessicated fingers pushing through the cracks in a chained and barred hospital door daubed with the warning "DON'T OPEN DEAD INSIDE." He flees down a pitch dark stairwell, lighting his way with matches in a sequence that—in spite of the fact that nothing happens—is easily the scariest part of the first episode. He then finds his way out into the parking lot and past the stacked dead.

I won't rehash the episode; suffice to say the writers are smart enough to let the story tell itself and not burden us with excessive exposition. Though they follow the source material fairly closely, where they do take liberties is telling—they bring a nuance and depth to the characters that is lacking in the graphic novels, which is heartening, for it bodes well for how the series will progress. As mentioned, the story is character-driven, essentially acting like a thought experiment in survivor psychology. The zombies are actually incidental, to a large extent—they could be substituted for almost any other post-apocalyptic scenario, and so neither Kirkman in the original or the writers in this adaptation seem inclined to do anything funky with them or trope them specifically one way or another. The living dead are very much in the George A. Romero mode, slow-moving and not especially dangerous alone, but terrifying and inexorable in large groups. The series is going to do what high-end television from AMC and HBO does best: tell stories that unfold at their own pace, are not formulaic, and attract actors serious about their craft. Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick, joins the ranks of British actors who put on American accents in such series (think of Dominic West and Idris Elba on The Wire, Ian McShane in Deadwood, Damian Lewis in Band of Brothers, Jamie Bamber in BSG, and of course the inimitable Hugh Laurie in House); I couldn't at first place where I knew him from, until someone reminded me that he was that guy in Love, Actually who made thousands of women swoon en masse with his cue-card declaration of love for Keira Knightly. And now he's wearing a southern accent and a stoic set to his jaw and killing the walking dead. Acting must be an interesting profession ...

What most impressed me about the premiere were the production values: AMC is sinking a lot of money into this series, and it shows. It was shot on sixteen-millimetre film, and they have veteran Oscar nominated director Frank Darabont producing. He directed the premiere, but doesn't seem to be slated to direct any of the other six episodes of season one—so I will be interested to see what the coming episodes look like, and whether there is a dip in quality. But for the record, episode one looked amazing. It was truly beautiful to watch, and had the kind of sequences you could easily teach in an intro to film class: the aforementioned hospital scenes, the dark stairwell, the horrifying parking lot littered with the dead, the car crash and gunfight that puts Rick Grimes in the hospital ... but perhaps most stunning is the sequence—shown in the trailers, and used in the advertising—in which Rick rides a horse into an apparently deserted and destroyed Atlanta.

Given that Darabont has made something of a career adapting Stephen King to film (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist) he seems quite well suited to helming such a macabre project. He has shown a talent not just for the scary and uncanny, but teasing out a nuanced understanding of how the scary and uncanny can warp and deform the human psyche.

Darabont's involvement also speaks to a larger issue with which I'm intrigued. My own preoccupation with zombies has been well documented on this blog (and I do promise one day to return to my Newfoundland zombie screenplay), but my recent presentation at the 2010 conference of the Canadian Association for American Studies was my first foray into an academic treatment of the living dead. One of the things attracting me to this is the critical mass of zombies in popular culture; and with a degree of saturation that suggests we'll soon be reaching genre burnout, the living dead have also partially emerged from the B-movie ghetto with a number of high-profile glossy films, as well as such accomplished treatments like 28 Days Later.

But in a twist that cultural critics probably wouldn't have predicted even ten years ago, it is the shift to television that is the hallmark of respectability. AMC has been carefully setting itself up as a rival to HBO, but because it lacks the same resources, it has had to very careful in its choices of original programming—and so far, it has not made a misstep. Mad Men, especially after this past season, is easily one of the best shows currently on the air (and a particular victory for AMC, as HBO passed on it); Breaking Bad I have not yet watched, but have never heard anything but glowing reviews of it; and likewise for Rubicon, which as a complex conspiracy thriller is something I should be watching, but there are only so many hours in the day.

With The Walking Dead, AMC is officially batting one thousand. I may be speaking too soon, but I doubt it—as long as the care that went into the premiere remains more or less consistent, the series promises to be really good.

Monday, November 01, 2010

An embarrassment of riches

Well, it doesn't rain but it does something else. Basically I'm absent from this blog for nearly a month and a half, and then two post topics suggest themselves to me with great insistence.

Incidentally, the problem I was having with my Google account? Gone. I still have no idea what was going on, but it seems to have resolved itself. Also, I can finally compose posts in Firefox again, after months of Google Analytics not letting me access Blogger, and forcing me to do it in Explorer--which always sucked, because for some reason Explorer introduces random formatting changes while Firefox was a lot more sensible.

But it's all good again.

ANYWAY ... yes, long absence, and a critical mass of great posting topics. I was going to write my thoughts on The Walking Dead, which premiered last night, but will save that for tomorrow. Today, I want to comment on the weird and somewhat haughty criticism this past weekend's "Rally to Restore Sanity" has received in the press. This of course was The Daily Show's response to the hysterical rhetoric on both the left and the right that has reached absurd proportions. Deliberately lampooning Glenn Beck's August 28 rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, though Beck claimed that did not figure in on him choosing that day), Jon Stewart et al encouraged people to come out and be reasonable.

From the start, I thought this was a brilliant idea, and it was encouragingly well-received. The turnout apparently peaked at a quarter million, which nearly tripled that of Beck's. But it seemed as though the balance of those journalists passing comment on the event -- before and after -- were irked at Stewart's presumption, and wondered if this was the moment The Daily Show was jumping the shark (for a good roundup of the criticism, see the NYT Opinionator here).

I'm honestly at a bit of a loss to understand the almost uniform hostility to Stewart's rally. It is slightly reminiscent of his notorious turn on Crossfire, when he refused to play the role of funny man for Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala and instead enjoined them to "stop hurting America." Though that was at the time almost universally celebrated, six-odd years on, the press seems to have cooled on Stewart (and Stephen Colbert) stepping outside the strictly delimited comedy box.

I'm not entirely certain why, though if I had to guess I would say that "real" journalists have gotten touchy about the extent to which a large number of people look to The Daily Show for their news. A significant audience has become so thoroughly jaded by political journalism that satire is their truth; I think the angry, disappointed, and haughty dismissals of the Rally to Restore Sanity reflect more tellingly on a profession that is deeply aware of how much it has had to trade off in order to stay on life support, and does not much like being reminded of that fact.

Interestingly, in all the cases where I've read one of these critiques online, the comments have been almost uniform in their disagreement: this representative piece by Timothy Noah at Slate excited over six hundred responses, and I haven't found one that agrees with his argument.

Such a sampling does not of course prove anything, but at a moment when politics in the U.S. seems obsessed with a sort of faux-populism, it does suggest whose message does excite a populist response.

Also, the signs at the rally were hilarious:

Other favourites I read about: "All we are saying is give cheese some pants"; "Christine O'Donnell turned me into a newt"; and my personal favourite, "My wife thinks I'm hiking the Appalachian Trail."

Friday, October 22, 2010


OK. This is just weird now.

Anyone else out there experiencing something similar?

This is just a test ...

... of your emergency blogging system. Please do not be alarmed: if you are reading these words, I am still able to post to my blog. If you are not reading these words, then you should by all means panic.

Of course, I would have no means of telling you to panic, so if this post does not make it to my blog, I will be informing you all in 2-5 days of the need to panic by postcard.

For some reason, I cannot access my Google account, which means I can't get onto Blogger to edit my posts. Every time I try to log in, it sends me back to the login screen. Just by way of experimentation, I put in the wrong password, and it told me I had the wrong password. But the correct password blithely resets the login screen.

MS Word however has a blogging feature that allows you to post directly from your Word document without opening blogger. So that's what I'm going to try doing here.

Hopefully this works. But one way or another, as far as Blogger is concerned, I don't know what to do. This is Google. Do they have someone I can call?

Here goes ...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Housekeeping and stuff

OK, I've been away from the blog for a while now, principally because—as I mentioned briefly in my previous post—this is the year I go up for tenure, and so most of September was given over to preparing my file, which was submitted on the first of October. Then I had to play catch-up with all the stuff (marking, mostly) that had had to be put off while the P/T file consumed my soul; then I had to write the conference paper I was presenting this past weekend at the annual CAAS conference in Windsor (and true to form, the paper was only satisfactorily completed about an hour before my panel in my hotel room).

So the long and the short of it is that the past month or so has essentially disappeared in a sleepless haze of grading and writing, and only now do I feel like I'm emerging—though that feeling, I fear, is illusory, as there is more grading in my immediate future and a glut of committee work. To say nothing of the fact that I am writing this blog post in minutes stolen between the solid raft of meetings with my first-year students I have today and tomorrow.

But I will take what I can get. I figure that before I get back to posting with quasi-regularity, I should do a bit of housekeeping here, cover some business that got missed in the past month.

1. Promotion and Tenure. Yes, I mentioned I'm up for promotion and tenure this year. But really, it's worth noting again. The compilation and assembly of my application and file represents one of the most tedious and yet anxiety-inducing—and not to say byzantine—things I have yet done in my academic career. To paraphrase Josh Lyman, the number of hoops I have to jump through before I can do whatever the hell I want is truly appalling.

2. Vampires Redux. I have been gently (and not so gently) prodded by some people about the unfinished vampire cage matches, which I have let hanging at the semifinals. We will return to them—this I promise.

3. Zombies, Redux. Perhaps I have drifted from my speculative battles between the undead because of my increasing preoccupation with the walking dead—way back in April I posted on the interesting upsurge in zombie films made since 9/11, apropos of working up a paper proposal for this year's CAAS (Canadian Association of American Studies) conference. I was very happy with that post, especially in terms of the discussion it generated. Well, as mentioned, the conference just happened this past weekend and I was very pleased with the paper's reception. I took a slightly different tangent than outlined in that post—or rather, I added a tangent, speaking first about zombies as the epitome of abjection, but also developing an argument suggesting that they also represent a creeping horror of mass culture.

4. Zombies, Redux redux. The end of October will see two banner events for fans of the zombie apocalypse. IFC will recast on North American television the brilliant British series Dead Set, in which the sole survivors of the zombie apocalypse are the contestants on Big Brother, barricaded as they are in their hermetically sealed set (Davina McCall, the British Big Brother host, guest stars as herself, and gets zombified right at the start). Though the set-up sounds comical, the series is actually quite terrifying, and very smart. Next, premiering on Halloween is the television adaptation of Robert Kirkman's graphic novel series The Walking Dead. As I mentioned in my paper this weekend, this is actually a very interesting development in the saga of the zombie genre: the network producing the series is AMC, which has also given us such critically acclaimed Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Rubicon, and which has been assiduously setting itself up to rival HBO as the premier purveyor of quality television. That the zombie apocalypse is now valid subject matter for such a network suggests that, having achieved market saturation, the walking dead now move toward artistic respectability. Expect to see my reactions to The Walking Dead as they air ...

5. FlowTV. Speaking of respectability ... at the start of September, I was invited to become a regular columnist for an online media studies journal published out of the University of Texas at Austin called FlowTV. As it happens, one of the things that got the editors' attention was this blog—and so my first column, which went up on October 15, is a retread of one of my reality-TV posts. The journal likes lively discussion of its articles, so please go check it out and leave a comment.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Winter is (still) coming

I'm currently in the throes of completing my promotion and tenure file (yes, it has been five years here ... weird), and so won't likely be posting until next week again at any length, but this I just had to share: the latest teaser for HBO's adaptation of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones.

"Dark wings, dark tidings."

Friday, September 24, 2010

Frosty Friday

There are some authors I sometimes feel the urge to dislike on general principle, but then I read something of theirs and must admit that the urge to dislike proceeds from a vague sense of the writer and has little or nothing to do with their actual writing. Margaret Atwood is one such author. Robert Frost is another.

Oh, don't get me wrong—I have nothing against Frost specifically, but his homespun, traditional, how-pastoral-is-New-England verse always seems so incredibly out of step with the raw modernist angst of a T.S. Eliot, or the playfulness and textual audacity of an e.e. cummings, or the thematic and metaphorical complexity and depth of a W.B. Yeats or W.H. Auden (as a side note, I've always wondered: modernists—what's with the initials?). By contrast, Frost at first glance seems quaint.

But then, if you actually pay attention to the poetry, you find darkness and ambivalence imbued in the rustic verses that belies their faux-naturalist, rocking-chair wisdom. There are exceptions to this, of course, the biggest example to me being the old favourite "The Road Not Taken"—which, besides its simplistically allegorical subject, always strikes me as nauseatingly self-congratulatory. (As an answer, I would pose Ellen Degeneres' great life lesson, "Don't take the beaten path. Unless you're lost in the woods, and then by all means, take the beaten path.")

At any rate, this is all apropos of reading, in my first-year class this week, what is about my favourite Robert Frost poem:


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

OK, basic stuff out of the way first: Petrarchan sonnet, rhymed ABBA ABBA ACAACC. The fact that Frost limited his choice of rhyme to three speaks to the poem's technical proficiency, but also wends an aural theme through on the A-rhyme that subverts the stereotypical conception of the purity or perfection of "white" with disease ("blight") and darkness ("night"). That he employs the sonnet form, especially a Petrarchan sonnet, is suggestive: a genre traditionally given over to a particular form of love poetry praising the specific features of one's beloved here frames an ambivalence or even revulsion at a particularly aesthetic brutality encountered in nature. Indeed, we don't lack for love sonnets that use the unalloyed beauty of nature as a useful analogy for the beauty of the beloved (Shakespeare's "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" for example), or which are more or less paeans to nature itself ("Upon Westminster Bridge" by William Wordsworth); Frost's sonnet here could itself almost be taken initially as such a poem, but for the mention of "death and blight" in line four, and the last line of the octet, which renders the lovely twinned images of the "snow-drop spider" and "flower like a froth" at best sinister, at the worst murderous.

But as I say to my students frequently, often a key to a poem's theme and meaning is in its title, and here "design" is the idea greeting us at the very outset and reappearing in the sestet's concluding couplet "What but design of darkness to appall?— / If design govern in a thing so small" as answer to the question of what could have caused this cruelly picturesque serendipity of white on white on white. "Design" is of course a loaded term, so bound up as it has been of late with creationism's stalking horse intelligent design—but the ostensible "design" of a benevolent creator has always been a point of faith and contention since before Darwin, and has given rise to such standard Sunday-school questions about the existence of evil in the world, or the purpose of pernicious animals from mosquitoes to great white sharks. The key repeated word in the sestet is the interrogative "What …?" which begins the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth lines. What, indeed?

Those of us who view the universe as ordered by chance would likely describe the image the poem's central image as uncanny—which, to adapt Freud's definition of the term, refers to the familiar being rendered odd, disquieting, or eerie. The striking conjunction of white flower, spider, and moth is a splendid poetic coincidence (assuming Frost didn't invent it whole cloth, which, even if he did, hardly matters), for it highlights the brutal calculus of survival that makes a mockery of our sentimentalized conception of nature. (When bringing up this point in class yesterday, I used as an example the requisite five minutes in every television special on penguins in which we see them bloodily eaten by leopard seals or killer whales—not as poetic as Frost's image perhaps, but effective, because everyone loves penguins. I could also point to the fact that penguins will push each other off the ice to see if the water is safe).

Frost's theme here however has a significantly atheistic overtone, echoing the cri de coeur of all those who point to such cruelty as evidence of God's non-existence. Certainly, "Design" functions as a useful poetic rebuttal to the belief in an omnipotent, interventionist God whose hand is visible at all levels of creation, and without whose say-so nothing happens. Frost does however leave things in question: there is an ambiguity in the sestet, which while suggesting the absurdity of design, leaves the possibility open. That possibility is at best deeply ambivalent: if there is design at work, the poem suggests, it is of "darkness."

To return to an earlier point, the re-tasking of the sonnet form is one of the more interesting aspects (for me) of the poem: typically, the sonnet proceeds as a question and answer, with the octet posing a "problem" and the sestet rhetorically or symbolically resolving that problem. Something like ninety percent of love sonnets do the following: "Oh, my love is so beautiful; but she will age and wither and die; but I shall immortalize her in this poem so her beauty will live forever." (Yes, there's a reason people find poets somewhat self-absorbed). Frost does not invert that structure per se, but rather deliberately compounds the problem posed in the octet (i.e. the conjunction of flower, spider, moth) with his trio of rhetorical questions in the sestet. If we find any resolution, it is a deeply disquieting one, and encourages us rather to take comfort in the randomness of the universe.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

After the flood all of the colours came out

The U2 reference in my title here notwithstanding, much of Newfoundland did not wake to a particularly beautiful day this morning. Or rather, I should clarify, the weather was bright and sunny and the sky cloudless, but that just served to highlight the damage wrought by Hurricane Igor.

I really didn't appreciate the scale of the storm until driving to work this morning—almost all of the stoplights were still out in St. John's, and everywhere there were toppled trees and branches. My own experience of the hurricane was actually a bit anticlimactic—my power did not go out, and the storm did not feel too bad (some friends and colleagues reported today that they could feel their houses shift and groan in the wind, but either because of my location or for some other reason, there wasn't too much of that for me).

I was tempted once or twice to suit up and go out into the storm, simply to be able to say I had done so, but fortunately I was able to resist such a foolish impulse. I remember once seeing a stand-up comedian who talked about a man from his hometown in Florida, who went out to experience a level five hurricane, but tied himself to a tree so he would not be blown away. "Let me explain to you the way wind works: it's not you being blown away that's the problem. Tying yourself to a tree will not protect you from being hit by, say, a Buick."

So, yeah. I stayed inside.

The fallen trees were really the most spectacular form of damage here, though there were some floods here and there. The real brunt of the storm was borne by the Burin and Bonavista Penninsulas, where the flooding was most severe. Some more isolated towns were entirely cut off when bridges were washed out. If you haven't seen any of the footage, this video was taken in Clarenville:


Friday, September 17, 2010

Milestones of a sort

It occurred to me this morning as I was driving to work that it was six years ago today that I defended my doctoral thesis. As with such sudden realizations at times, the memory of that day came flooding back rather powerfully. Perhaps it was because the memory came in the morning, while in the car, that the first thing I remembered was nearly being in a car accident en route to campus.

The defence was scheduled for one o'clock, and my original intention had been to sleep in, relax in my apartment and just chill until almost noon. Of course, that didn't happen—I woke at 5am, wide awake, though I resolutely stayed in bed until almost seven before sheer nerves drove me up. I made coffee, tried watching TV, tried playing a video game, tried, even (so quixotically) to read ... but nothing was working, so instead of pacing around my small apartment I gave in and drove to school a little after nine-thirty.

When I was halfway, I was very nearly t-boned by a guy running a stop sign. I screeched to a halt, he screeched to a halt, inches away from each other, and he made apologetic gestures. He must have been a bit confused that I wasn't looking or gesticulating at him, but rather had my face turned upward and was shaking my fist at the roof of my car. What I was actually shouting was "No, Universe! Not today, you don't!"

Anyway, I made it up unscathed, and the rest is now history. The whole defence, as it happens, turned out to be a rather enjoyable affair—the examination committee was quite impressed with my thesis, and we all had fun hashing out some of the ideas and issues I'd written about. Turns out that when you spend several years researching and writing a 300+ page project, you actually become the authority in the room on the subject. Who knew?

Fortuitously, that afternoon there was a departmental function at the Grad Club, a meet and greet for faculty and grad students. We all had name tags printed on white stickers ready for us, and to this day one of my fondest moments was when M.J. Kidnie, a relatively new hire with whom I had struck up a good friendship, running over with a pen to strike out "PhD Candidate" under my name and write "Dr." in front of it.

The, um, rest of the departmental function and my defence party that evening are sort of vague in my memory.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Randomness for a Wednesday afternoon

Best sentence to be taken out of context I've read all week, from a discussion between Gail Collins and David Brooks in today's New York Times: "Everyone is enthusiastic about the migration of beautiful young women, but the attitude toward a mile-long stack of walruses along the coast is more mixed."

In the same column, the smartest thing David Brooks has ever put in print, viz. his theory that Sarah Palin is actually a Democratic saboteur: "That's the only plausible explanation for the last two years. First she charms John McCain, gets into his campaign and promptly extinguishes any chance he had of winning the presidency in 2008. Then she leads large sections of the G.O.P. into an intellectual cul de sac." Makes me wonder if I've been reading Palin all wrong this whole time. Don't retreat, Sarah Barracuda ... reload!

In wingnut news, you know how sometimes creationists and climate change deniers liken themselves to Galileo—characterizing themselves as lonely truth-speakers persecuted and silenced by the powers that be? Well, Robert A. Sungenis and Robert J. Bennett have gone a step further with their book Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right. (The title is to the point, at least). The publisher's blurb describes the book as "a detailed and comprehensive treatise that demonstrates from the scientific evidence that heliocentrism (the concept that the Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun) is an unproven scientific theory; and that geocentrism (the view that the Earth is in the center of the universe and does not move by either rotation or revolution) is not only supported by the scientific evidence but is admitted to be a logical and viable cosmology by many of the world's top scientists, including Albert Einstein, Ernst Mach, Edwin Hubble, Fred Hoyle and many more."

As writers as disparate as Christopher Hitchens and Michael Berubé have pondered of creationism, why take such specific issue with the theory of evolution when, really, the Big Bang would really be the theory to take down if you want to demonstrate that the earth is only 6014 years old? Well, here's the granddaddy of all intelligent design polemics, written by the president of Catholic Apologetics International and someone who "has been an instructor of physics and mathematics for many years at various academic institutions." You don't say—"various academic institutions"? One wonders how many, and how long he lasted at each ...

Also, a question from the floor: don't Catholics have enough to be apologetic about (internationally) these days without trying to take down Galileo? And Kepler? And Isaac Newton?

As my friend Julia observed, the really scary thing is that the book made it into a second edition

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Poetry break: William Carlos Williams

I promised, or rather hinted some time back that as I prep my intro English course for the term, I might introduce some poetry periodically onto this humble blog.

This afternoon has been mostly dedicated to prepping this week's material for English 1080: Critical Reading and Writing I, the English course that every single Memorial student must take, and which I had a bit of a hard time with last year. As I droned on about in that previous post on this subject, getting first-year students to read poetry seriously—and think about it substantively—is not at all unlike getting little kids to eat their vegetables—assuming that said little kids have been indoctrinated into believing that vegetables are actually poisonous.

But I soldier on, both because I do in fact firmly believe that learning to read poetry is a valuable thing in and of itself, and because I love the damn stuff too much not to. A colleague of mine the other day told me he no longer does poetry in 1080 any longer, because he can't stand having stuff he loves disdained and mistreated. I'm not quite there myself, but I'll keep you posted.

At any rate, as I was compiling my syllabus, I pulled out my collected William Carlos Williams to find a poem not in my anthology that I wanted to use ("Landscape With the Fall of Icarus"), and came across the following little gem:


How clean these shallows
how firm these rocks stand
about which wash
the waters of the world

It is ice to this body
that unclothes its pallors
to thoughts
of an immeasurable sea,

unmarred, that as it lifts
encloses this
straining mind, these
limbs in a single gesture.

I read this, and think "William Carlos Williams visited Labrador?" What followed was one of those flurries of activity that was, essentially, a distraction from the work I needed to do, but which felt like productive research. As it turns out, Williams visited Newfoundland and Labrador in 1933 on a cruise with his wife. That relatively short—two weeks—vacation left an impression. The cruise took them up the west coast, as far north as St. Anthony's. I found some references to this in William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, a biography by Paul Mariani. My favourite bit:

"How alien this world seemed. Still, Williams had sworn had sworn he would swim in these northern waters and had taken off—alone—for the north end of the island. There he found only puffins and water so cold he could hardly believe it. Nevertheless, he did manage to dip beneath the surface … and to gash his stomach on the shelly bottom before he scrambled for shore. At least he'd come into intimate contact with the primitive elements of that place."

I'm thinking that Williams' Newfoundland connection is something to explore at greater length, especially considering that he apparently came back on a few occasions (visits my relatively cursory research did not reveal). Speaking to a senior colleague about this at a start-of-term mixer, I discovered that not only had Williams returned several times, but that the senior colleague in question got pissed as a newt with the man. Huh. The oral history here needs uncovering, I think.

But to return to the poem in question, I find Williams' primitivism interesting. He is, to a certain extent, falling into what I tend of think of as the Group of Seven cliché—the reductive association of the north with what Williams' biographer calls "the primitive elements of that place." Perhaps I've simply read too much CanLit that mythologizes the north as somehow pure and clean, a space in which the human soul can test itself (Farley Mowat being public enemy number one in this respect), but it does get a little repetitive after a time. That Williams "had sworn had sworn he would swim in these northern waters" is unsurprising—his poetic philosophy was "no ideas but in things," and focused his writing on the concrete, the tactile, and the tangible, and loathed such over-intellectualized poetry as T.S. Eliot's (Williams called The Waste Land a "catastrophe" for American letters). I didn't know he had the Hemingwayesque tendency toward extremes of physicality, but it's a little endearing. Better him than me swimming in Newfoundland waters, is all I have to say. Wading ankle-deep at Middle Cove beach is about as much as I can handle.

Williams was one of the premier "imagists," one of a group of modernist poets who desired to ground poetry in concrete things. His most famous poem, which most people encounter in high school (and which is one of the first things I'll be doing in 1080) is "The Red Wheelbarrow," a deceptively simple, seemingly descriptive work:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Much of Williams' poetry lies in the lyricism of such simple, parochial things. Ironically, this can make him a difficult poet to teach: while students are generally reluctant to engage with poetry, they nevertheless tend to have a sense of poetry as something somehow elevated or rarefied, and when presented with Williams' insistence on simplicity they dismiss it. It's not that they are more at home with the complex interplay of themes in a John Donne poem, but at least with Donne they find the opacity and archaism they stereotypically associate with poetry.

"Labrador" is, in many ways, an exemplary Williams work—the first thing one notices is its simplicity and symmetry, moving from the image of the rocky shore, to a more complex connection between the chill waters and the self, to that amazing final stanza that collapses the distinction between the self and the vast ocean. Though I've already taken issue with Williams' replication of the northerly mythos, I must say he phrases it in rather an elegant and, for all the vividness of the imagery, nebulous fashion. He transmutes the specificity of place—we know from the title where the speaker is, and that first stanza's description of the rocky shore is striking—into a universal, citing at first the universality of the ocean ("the waters of the world"). The second stanza gives us particularity again in "this body," but makes that key connection to "thoughts / of an immeasurable sea." One thinks here of Jung's metaphor for the unconscious as an ocean—though I somehow doubt Williams had much use for psychoanalysis (not a point I'm familiar with one way or another), the sea certainly becomes an image of connection and universality. The wrinkle in a Jungian reading is that it is uncertain whether the speaker is concerned with other people, or his connection to a primal natural state, or simply nature itself. My own reading is the latter: the freezing ocean in this poem appears indifferent to the shocks it visits on the frail human body. The gesture, rather, is the speaker's offering to the sea, which accepts the sacrifice with a sublime magnanimity.

Again, it is the symmetry of the poem that is striking: three short stanzas, the first of which frames the setting; the second, which while speaking of the poet's body, moves into somewhat vaguer and more abstract language and generalizations; and the third, at once the most moving and the most opaque. I always remember the professor in the one creative writing course I ever took stressing that poetry moved from the concrete to the abstract: "Love might be your topic," she was fond of saying, "but NEVER use the word love." We might have used "Labrador" as a case study: that final stanza is beautifully cryptic, but would be useless if Williams had not given us the vivid image of the Labrador coast in the first.

So what is that final stanza saying? What is it doing? I have to imagine I've been Googled by some of my new students, who found their way to this blog—please, tell me what you think.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Thoughts on (my) New Year’s Eve

As I have blogged many times in the past (at least once a year, it seems to me), for me the new year starts not on January first, but the day after Labour Day. My entire life since the age of about four has been tied to the rhythms of the school year, and when I recall important events in my life I don't think "Oh, that happened in fall of 1986" or "I did that in 2003," I think "that happened in grade nine" and "I did that in year six of my PhD." January first—and its drunken sibling, December 31st—always feel anticlimactic to me, and I have disliked New Year's Eve for reasons I never articulated to myself until my friend Gregg did it for me. In one of his many moments of earthy wisdom, he observed that there are two days a year we are under great pressure to enjoy: the first is our birthday, the second is New Year's. Birthdays are easy, if you have good friends and/or family, and don't get too freaked out about aging—the day is all about you. But as Gregg sagely observed, New Year's Eve is everybody's birthday, and the every-man-for-himself partying that happens often carries a tinge of desperation.

And for me, it's not the true beginning of the year. One of the things I love about my job is that I remain plugged into this annual cycle in which, as you come off the heat and languor of the summer, you look forward to the crisp weather of autumn and the energy of a new school year. Northrop Frye, in his magisterial work on archetypes in literary archetypes, associates autumn with "myths of the fall, dying gods, violent death and sacrifice" and the isolation of the hero, with tragedy and elegy as its representative genres. I like to imagine however that this was at odds with what Frye, a lifelong academic, experienced on a yearly basis—knowing that these archetypes are rooted in our mythic and agrarian origins, but that September for us bookish scholastic types evokes feelings of renewal and rebirth. Autumn, in other words, is the academic's spring.

At any rate, I've been lax on this blog for the last three weeks or so, and hope to rectify that as the term begins. To all those about to begin a school year, I salute you.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Prop 8 and paradigms

Victor Hugo famously said that there is no stronger force than an idea whose time has come. I think we're witnessing that right now.

I came across two interesting comments on the Prop-8 ruling, and the Ross Douthat column I discussed in my previous post. One was actually a comment on the other—Andrew Sullivan quoting Ezra Klein—but I thought his brief observation was rather insightful, and it made me think. The key Klein passage:

America does not currently conceive of marriage in the way that Douthat … would like it to conceive of marriage, and in the way it would need to conceive of marriage in order for there to be a good reason the institution can't accommodate gays. So to oppose gay marriage, Douthat … must first construct an alternative version of marriage, and then argue that if real marriage opens to gays, that's another step away from the idealized marriage that would be closed to gays.

It's like partisans of VCRs opposing improvements to DVDs because they make the widespread resurrection of VHS unlikely.

I liked this analogy a lot, in part because it got me thinking about paradigm shifts. Sullivan's comment got my mind working in similar ways: "It seems to me that we are witnessing the much faster collapse of the anti-gay marriage case - on logic and public opinion - that almost anyone anticipated. It is as if suddenly, one consensus has imploded and another begun."

Thomas Kuhn's theory of paradigms works along much this same reasoning: that societal change is not gradual, but tends to happen with remarkable speed when it happens, and one dominant world-view will be eclipsed by another apparently all at once. Basically, what we witness is the inertia of accepted wisdom being overcome by incremental change that has gathered weight and force until it can no longer be withstood. What seemed timeless and enduring can suddenly no longer stand.

Even just a decade ago, gay marriage was considered a possibility but decades away from broad social acceptance; two decades ago it was unthinkable but for a tiny minority. Resistance to the idea is still strong, but waning fast; the strongest signal of this shift is less its vocal advocacy than mainstream indifference, which suggests more than anything a fait accompli. I'd like to think that we've reached that historical tipping-point.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taking encouragement from odd sources

Just a few days ago, Proposition 8 was struck down in California, making gay marriage again legal in that state. The court case leading to this decision has been fascinating, and Judge Vaughn Walker's ruling will likely stand as a milestone decision in the history of human rights.

There are many, many aspects of this decision that are encouraging about the mainstreaming of the presence of gays and lesbians in contemporary culture. I want to cite two of them today.

Here's one: the principal lawyer in the team arguing against Prop 8 was Ted Olson, a conservative most famous for representing George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore 2000. Olson did an extraordinary job of taking down Prop 8 on its constitutional flaws, and we see his mad skillz here in an interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace:

That this former Bush proponent can argue so eloquently for the right of gay marriage doesn't encourage me so much because he's a conservative taking a stereotypically non-conservative position, as that the intellectual basis for his constitutional argument is so solid. Don't get me wrong: I'm always happy to see conservatives endorse socially liberal philosophy, but it's comforting to see so strong a vindication of a secular humanist reading of the U.S. constitution.

The second thing to which I want point was Ross Douthat's editorial the day before yesterday in the NY Times. It was a little garbled. From what I can gather, he attempted to articulate his opposition to gay marriage by way of a defence of heterosexual monogamy as something somehow exceptional. He writes:

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it's that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support ... But if we just accept this shift, we're giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.

To my mind, it's the bit suggesting "lifelong heterosexual monogamy" is "a microcosm of civilization" that makes this art. Seriously? This would be less absurd a claim if he had not already, in the name of acknowledging certain anti-gay-marriage arguments as wrong-headed, dispensed with a clutch of their standards in his opening paragraph. For example, he cites the old saw that "Marriage is an ancient institution that has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman, and we meddle with that definition at our peril." These arguments, he admits, "have lost because they're wrong."

They may be wrong by Douthat's own admission, but he then essentially advances the same argument by different means. The argument by way of nature doesn't work, he acknowledges; anyone claiming homosexuality as unnatural must needs account for genetic and biological evidence, to say nothing of the Central Park Zoo's homosexual penguins. So he reverts to an argument by way of civilization. Heterosexual monogamy, he further acknowledges, is unnatural in itself: "If 'natural' is defined to mean 'congruent with our biological instincts,' it's arguably one of the more unnatural arrangements imaginable." However—and here is his basic point—it is in its unnaturality that heterosexual monogamy deserves to be enshrined and protected, as it is the basis of Western civilization: it is in fact, to repeat his words, "one of the great ideas of Western civilization."

I'm not really sure where to begin here. Maybe pointing out that heterosexual marriage was not the sole provenance of Western civilization—I'm pretty sure ancient Chinese and Indian cultures practised something comparable. Secondly: dude, have you read Plato's Symposium? If there's any consensus on what the cradle of Western democratic and humanistic ideals was, ancient Athens is kind of it. And, um, not to put too fine a point on it—but they did quite love their man-on-man encounters, to the point where Plato (he to whom all of Western philosophy is but a footnote, remember) enshrined it as the most perfect expression of aesthetic love. Also, Sappho—let's not forget Sappho either.

But really, that kind of nitpicking (as fun as it is) is kind of beside the point. The point is the sheer incoherence of Douthat's piece. It reads as the flailing of a conservative thinker—a religious conservative at that—who on one hand is too intelligent to accept the standard anti-gay arguments but also cannot abandon the basic precepts of his faith and political convictions. Which leads to a kind of desperate re-framing of the issue: same-sex marriage isn't the natural order of things, but it's a great idea we abandon at our own peril—much like school prayer. Or white presidents.

Of course, once Douthat acknowledges same-sex marriage as an idea among other ideas, he cedes the absolutist ground on which the Right tends to frame the issue of marriage—kind of like how those Biblical passages "proving" the earth's centrality had to be re-read as allegorical in the face of the Copernican Revolution, or legislative racism gave way before the U.S. constitution's basic promise of human rights. There's still a long way to go, but it's always comforting to have indicators of hope.

Friday, August 06, 2010

In praise of arbitrary milestones

As heralded several days ago, this is the five hundredth post to this humble bog. Given that this blog also recently celebrated its five anniversary, that means that over the last five years I have published posts at an average rate of once every 3.68 days. Not too shabby.

I'd drink champage if I had it. I don't, so I'll settle for a Friday afternoon cocktail. I will sip it and think of you, my readers. Slainte!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

More Big Love ruminations, or, No Mormons were harmed in the writing of this post

We've made it to the end of season three of Big Love, and while it got a little uneven over the last few episodes, overall I still have to give the series a big thumbs up. I've been pounding out some notes on the various points of interest the series has—academically speaking—for potential articles; there are a variety of tangents I can take, but the one that occurred to me today is the weird incongruity between the kind of shows HBO has become known for, and the basic content of Big Love. To put it another way: HBO has always taken advantage of its freedom as a pay station to depict things like nudity and profanity, stuff you can't get away with on regular cable. Indeed, HBO series take transgression to a new level, with the very nearly Shakespearian potty mouths of Deadwood, or the frequent graphic gay sex of Oz.

Big Love, on the other hand, depicts deeply religious and self-consciously decent people for whom swearing is about as unthinkable as taking a drink. The most offensive the language gets are with such foul ejaculations as "Oh, my heck!" and "What the H are you thinking?" (come to think of it, the phrase "foul ejaculations" would probably cause serious upset within the Henrickson clan). To those familiar with the blue language of The Wire and Deadwood, Big Love is almost shocking for its propriety. I amuse myself sometimes imagining a crossover episode that would make Jimmy McNulty a house guest of the Henricksons.

Which made me ponder: is this how HBO now gives us edgy content? There's a great Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin shows Hobbes how he offends his parents with his music: elevator music, played very softly. When you have very secular and liberal sensibilities, when you grew up listening to industrial music or gangsta rap (or both), what exactly do your children have to do to earn your disapprobation? Christian rock and a membership in the Young Conservatives?

I say this of course with my tongue in my cheek, but one of the things I like about Big Love is that it does not depict the Henricksons' religious devotion ironically (which might be the series more subtle irony, but I will come to that). On the contrary, the characters are quite earnest in their faith. To be sure, there are some comic moments (usually involving Nicki) where the tenets of Mormon fundamentalism appear risible, but the show lets Bill and his clan be sincere in their beliefs with a minimum of implicit critique.

That being said, it is hard to avoid the fact that HBO's prevailing demographic is a university-educated, largely secular and liberal audience—an audience likely to be at least sceptical of such religious fervour as depicted on the show, at most dismissive or hostile. I can of course only proceed from my own subjective response to the show, but I have to imagine that there are many viewers of a similar mindset to mine: who like the Henricksons as characters, but also view this world—not just the polygamists' world, but a social context in which one's adherence to the Mormon Church (or any church) is an arbiter of one's social virtue—is utterly alien. Indeed, one of the most interesting thematic points of Big Love, and something I suspect mitigates the Henricksons' lifestyle for a liberal audience, is the fact that the social condemnation of polygamy proceeds not from an abhorrence of such a crushingly patriarchal system, but from the dogma of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Polygamy, originally a basic tenet of the Mormon Church, was officially disavowed in 1890 by church president Wilson Woodruff under Congressional pressure. The prejudice against the Henricksons seems to be less a matter of intellectual distinction than pious adherence to church doctrine, and the church itself functions on the show as a panoptical entity with a constant disapproving eyebrow cocked at anyone not vigorously active in church activity. (In season one, the church distributes colour-coded street maps to neighbourhoods indicating which homes are "active" and which ones are "inactive"; Nicki, whose dress and demeanour identify her as a fundamentalist, has her house blacked out).

The series also fosters an understanding of Mormonism, and the Henricksons' heretical offshoot, only gradually—and it was only in the third season that the theological underpinnings of polygamy and the history of the LDS Church came into focus. Again speaking from a subjective position here, this has the effect of introducing the loonier aspects of Mormonism only when you have an emotional investment in these characters. To wit: in the 1820s in western New York, Joseph Smith Jr. (who had been previously arrested several times for grifting and scamming people) announced that he had, after three visitations from the Angel Moroni, discovered two gold plates that told the story of the origins of those living in America and the truth of the Gospels. He also had two magical stones that, when fashioned into eyeglasses, allowed him to translate the plates. In the course of about two months, dictating from behind a curtain (he refused to show the plates to anyone, but needed a scribe as he was himself illiterate), Smith produced about 500 pages of what was to become The Book of Mormon. Persecution from locals hostile to the self-styled prophet and his followers led to a protracted journey across the U.S., during which Joseph Smith was killed in Illinois in another altercation with locals (leaving behind thirty-two wives). The "saints" were ultimately led to the Salt Lake by Smith's lieutenant Brigham Young, where they established the geographical home of the LDS Church. Mormonism continues to be today one of the world's fastest-growing religions, boasting such congregants as Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck.

The principle behind polygamy—simply referred to as "The Principle" on Big Love—is the belief that the family you have in the temporal world is with you in the "Celestial Kingdom," the highest and most blessed plane of the afterlife, and that it is one's moral obligation to grow the temporal family as much as possible in order to obtain a more blessed afterlife. Hence, all of the difficulties faced by the Henrickson clan in maintaining and growing their family—and the pursuit of a family structure abhorrent to secularists because of its basis in an egregious paternalism and patriarchal imperative—are undertaken in the name of an arcane religious doctrine that I'm fairly certain seems not just odd to the HBO demographic, but actively delusional and quasi-insane. Which, I would argue, is where the series develops its subtle irony—dramatic irony, as it were, as the audience watches Bill et al subject themselves to a host of difficulties for reasons they find, at the very least, unnecessary.

The insularity of the world depicted on Big Love also contributes, I believe, to its dramatic appeal to a largely secular audience. Though not harping on this point, both the polygamists and the mainstream Mormons make it clear that those not baptized into the LDS Church are damned—or at least definitively excluded from eternal joy in the Celestial Kingdom. Hence, though we may find the Henricksons endearing, we have little reason to be sympathetic to an exclusive religious doctrine that so emphatically shuts out not just non-Christians and non-believers, but the vast majority of Christians as well. The incursions of secular perspectives are few and far between, and were the show to consistently stage the conflict as between religion and secularism, I certainly know I would find it a lot more difficult to sympathize with the Henricksons and their fellow-travellers. To put it simply, I'd have a dog in the hunt, whereas in its current form I find myself sufficiently outside the show's context to be at once more objective and also more emotionally involved with the main characters.

As a final thought, I would argue that the great value of Big Love is the fact that it offers a subtle but trenchant critique of religious doctrine and the nuclear family portraying both taken to their illogical extremes. The disturbing, cultish quality of the compound-living fundamentalists is contrasted with the modern sheen of the contemporary LDS—but as already mentioned, the mainstream LDS Church is itself portrayed as oppressive and prejudiced, and besides which sharing the bizarre origin story of the self-styled latter-day Mohammed, Joseph Smith Jr. The thought that occurs to me however when reading the Smith narrative is that the only thing that really makes it more unbelievable than any other religious origin story is its proximity to us in time—it lacks the aura of authenticity bestowed upon other religions' starting-points because it emerges not in mythic time, but in years recent enough for us to read about Smith's arrests for grifting in the New York newspapers of the day.

Similarly, the contrast between the Henricksons' shiny modern suburban life and the rustic, rudimentary pioneer-village of the fundamentalist compound is a visual cue that identifies them more closely with television's standard depictions of the nuclear family. Throughout the first season, Big Love generally depicts the Henricksons as happy and balanced family unit that who would have a perfect life if only the rest of the world wasn't prejudiced against them. This happiness is however increasingly shown to be a facade, with the cracks showing as various family members chafe against the asymmetries of what is ultimately shown to be a rigidly hierarchical system. Though Bill himself at first seems like a veritable paradigm of masculine responsibility, generosity, and, yes, liberality, he increasingly comes to assert the absolute authority of the patriarch and make recourse to doctrinal justification for that authority. In the process, the traditional model of the nuclear family suffers by comparison: the "father knows best" model, which as I've suggested in previous posts is a television staple, ultimately appeals to the same logic of innate masculine authority.

OK, much longer post than I'd planned. Still ... thoughts?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Summer reading

It is August already, and just as I always do at this point in the summer, I wonder where the hell the last few months went. The school year is just around the corner, and many of the things I had planned to get done by this point are still, well, piled up in the on-deck circle.

On the other hand, I have done an awful lot of reading—most of it research-related, but a lot of it has also been purely for pleasure (though this is one of the benefits of being an English professor whose area of specialization is contemporary: more than a few titles listed here have article potential. Any guesses which ones?) Here are the highlights:

Benjamin Black, Christine Falls and The Silver Swan.

Benjamin Black is the nom de plume for Booker-winning Irish novelist John Banville, who took up the new moniker so that he could write detective fiction. Not that there is much in the way of deception, considering that the author bio begins "Benjamin Black is the pen name of acclaimed author John Banville ..." and features Banville's recognizable mug quite prominently. I guess he wanted to make it clear that genre fiction was just a hobby. At any rate, the novels are quite good, and excellent antidotes to those who want to romanticize living in Ireland—they take place in 1950s Dublin, and more than anything else are atmospheric evocations of a grimy, impoverished and pettishly puritanical culture. Black/ Banville's "detective" is a broken down, quasi-alcoholic pathologist named Quirke who finds himself embroiled in mysteries that he sort of half-assedly investigates. The attraction of these novels is not in Quirke's talents as an investigator (he is, frankly, rather inept), so anyone hoping for a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot will be disappointed. And while he's a hard-drinking ladies' man, Quirke lacks the edge of a Sam Spade, given that he sort of muddles through things. Call it soft-boiled detective fiction, and enjoy it for Banville/ Black's glorious prose.

Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals.

I have written about my love for Sir Terry's parodic fantasy fiction severaltimes on this blog. His wit and intelligence are always impressive, but his sheer productivity is mind-numbing. Unseen Academicals is his thirty-seventh Discworld novel (with number thirty-eight due out in the fall). Impressive for anyone—doubly impressive for someone battling Alzheimer's. I had the good fortune to read Unseen Academicals during the World Cup; this Discworld instalment is all about the ancient game of Foote-the-Ball and the changes the game adopts when it becomes imperative for the wizards of Unseen University to field a team and play the local thugs of the city of Ankh-Morpork. If you're utterly confused by this premise, you are obviously a Discworld virgin; I suggest you remedy that, and soon. Unseen Academicals has all the usual components of a Pratchett novel: sharp satire, absurd humour, a colourful yet deeply sympathetic (for the most part) cast of characters, and a multilayered storyline that never quite goes in the direction you expect. Highly recommended for the initiated.

John R. Hale, Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy.

Triremes! Sea battles! Brilliant Greek names like Themistocles, Pericles, Thrasybulus, and Demosthenes! I picked this book up on a whim at the UWO bookstore, out of a general fascination with ancient Greek and military history, and couldn't put it down. Hale is a brilliant historian—from my brief investigation of the guy's scholarly cred, he is pretty much the authority on ancient navies. And Vikings. But for my purposes, he also is an amazing storyteller. This book takes you from just before the first Persian War up to the death of Alexander the Great, and shows how Athens and its democratic legacy was basically made possible by its navy.

Jo Walton, Farthing and Ha'Penny.

These are two old-style English murder mysteries set in an alternative history in which England negotiated a truce with Hitler in 1941. I was surprised at first with how unobtrusive the alternative historical context was: it really does sort of fade into the background in Farthing, but with Ha'Penny Walton makes it increasingly prevalent. The effect is somewhat insidious: before you know it, you are taken out of the comfortable familiarity of the genteel English mystery and made to face an all-too-possible alternative history in which the blight of Nazism has not been eliminated from Europe and Britain is slowly but inexorably sliding into fascism itself. The third book of the trilogy, Half a Crown, I have not yet been able to lay my hands on.

Richard K. Morgan, Market Forces and Broken Angels.

Some of you will remember my post on Richard K. Morgan's Black Man back in May, something made rather remarkably memorable by the fact that Morgan himself responded to my criticisms of his novel in my comments section. This precipitated a great back-and-forth over email between me and the man himself, with the tentative promise of an interview that—ideally—I can shop to an SF journal in conjunction with an article on his novels. In the interests of said article, I needed to read the two Morgan books I hadn't yet got around to. Unfortunately, publishers have not been cooperating with me this summer: it seems that all the books I want to get are out of print or out of stock, or (in the case of the two Morgan books in question) only available in audio format. Fortunately, my good friend Tim Blackmore here at UWO (who was obliquely responsible for me discovering Morgan to begin with) came to my rescue with a loaner of the two novels in question. All of which is an account of everything but the books themselves. So: Market Forces is exactly one half of an extrapolative dystopia (which may well be a redundant term), depicting a future in which high-stakes capitalism literally entails killing to get ahead, and which overtly profits from conflicts in the developing world. This much is good; the Mad Max-style combat between corporate ladder-climbers—in which they do battle in souped-up cars on the highway—is out of step with the general intellectual seriousness of the rest of the novel. Broken Angels is the second of the three Takeshi Kovacs novels, and exhibits the same fusion of hard-boiled detective fiction and cyberpunk of the other two.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation.

Here's my two-part SF heresy: (1) I had never read Asimov's classic Foundation until this summer, and (2) I was totally underwhelmed by it. Even taking into account my belated encounter with it, having read a slew of contemporary SF classics that have all profited from Asimov's playbook, it felt pretty thin to me. Now, the overall concept, of a massive galactic empire in decay and the efforts of a group of scholars to preserve civilization through the inevitable crash and dark age that follows, is positively visionary. But the actual story that told was, well, insufficient to the promise of that concept. Granted, I have yet to read the subsequent Foundation novels, but the quality of the storytelling itself was disappointing enough to not make me enthusiastic about reading them. I'm sure I will at some point, for the simple need to cover my SF bases, but it is not currently high on my priority list.

Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged.

Speaking of the weird caprices of publishing this summer: after having The Blade Itself recommended to me a few years ago by a fellow fantasy enthusiast, I finally got around to picking it up this summer. I quite enjoyed it: it is a great story of, among other things, the world-weariness of those whose life is lived by the blade. The alternative world evoked is quite vivid, and the characters well realized. I avidly picked up book number two, Before They Are Hanged, but have not been able to lay hands on Last Argument of Kings ... for reasons passing understanding, the first two are readily available but the third has effectively vanished from this earth. Adding insult to injury, Abercrombie's most recent novel (which seems to take place in the same world some twenty years later) is also on the shelves.

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner.

Did anyone else find this novel way overrated? For a while after it first came out, it seemed to be all anyone could talk about. I'd heard its brilliance praised to the skies by many people whose opinions I respect, and so had always meant to get around to reading it. Well, I finally did ... and was waiting for that storytelling or technical brilliance to appear. Not so much. I found the story generally engaging, if a bit pedestrian, and the dramatic sequences really rather contrived. It kind of had all the set-pieces a western audience expects of a novel set in Afghanistan, with little to question, complicate, or challenge those assumptions.

Cormac McCarthy, Child of God.

I love love love Cormac McCarthy, and ever have since first reading Blood Meridian. It's a bit of a truism to call him William Faulkner's heir apparent—on one hand, I think that is true (him and Toni Morrison), but at the same time he's marked out his own thematic and stylistic territory. He stumbled a bit with All The Pretty Horses, but The Crossing and Cities of the Plain more than made up for that. And then, No Country for Old Men. And then ... The Road. B'Jaysus, of the handful of novels I've read that have left me metaphorically in the fetal position from sheer emotional exhaustion, that one is certainly in the top three. Anyway, I realised this summer I had not read any of his three earliest novels, and on the recommendation of s student decided to start with Child of God. And ... phew. OK, Cormac—I'm seeing some of your later fiction here, some of your key themes and tropes, but not with the subtlety and nuance you learn. Child of God is set in Tennessee mountain country and follows the exploits of Les Ballard, who may or may not be developmentally challenged. Les basically descends into increasingly depraved behaviour, much of it necrophiliac in nature. And that's all I will say, aside from the fact that McCarthy's prose makes even the most revolting situations worth reading.

Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

I quite simply have to love Anthony Bourdain. His schtick as the bad boy of the food world and the iconoclast of the Food Network would be entertaining but ultimately boring if undertaken by anyone else. Many of his targets are pretty easy, especially food "personalities" like Rachael Ray. Back when he published Kitchen Confidential in 2000—the book that made his reputation and his subsequent career—he took equal aim at all celebrity chefs, especially the likes of Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Now, ten years later, he is far more seasoned and thoughtful, and quite willing to admit error. This last quality is what most endears me to Bourdain: it's easy to be an iconoclast, but pretty damn hard to be a thoughtful one willing to revise one's opinions. And revise he has: he bemoans the increasing slide into populism made by the Food Network, while acknowledging that of course the network will go where the money is; he continues to mock Emeril et al, but gently, and acknowledges the fact that they are and always were superior chefs to him; and on that note, he is quite frank about his own pedestrian talents in the kitchen—he is (or was) a journeyman cook, and offers heartfelt advice to those just starting out about how to avoid his own missteps; all the while still being utterly unforgiving to those he sees as villains of the food world, from the leaders of the "slow food" movement to manufacturers of ground beef. Whatever else you think of him, Bourdain is always an entertaining read.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The reality virus, ctd: warriors and catches, deadly or otherwise

OK, here's a telling glimpse into the working of my mind, and further evidence if you like for a mild case of attention deficit disorder ... or at least my fairly spectacular talent for tangents. You see, today's post is the one I had in mind when I sat down and wrote what became my rather long reality TV post of a few weeks ago (technically, two and a half months ago ... but who's counting?). The opening preamble there was meant as a lead-in to the observation of how reality television has sort of split itself into three or four sub-categories, and I was going to talk about one specific one. Except that then I didn't, and ended up talking about reality TV more generally.

That being said, I was pretty pleased with the way the post turned out, and now have some decent raw material should I pursue it as an article. Sometimes distractions can be fruitful ...

ANYWAY ... what initially prompted my televisual musings was that the previous Sunday evening I had been treated to several episodes in a row of my new guilty pleasure, Deadliest Warrior—a show that posits hypothetical battles between soldiers and warriors from different historical periods and places. Drawing on contemporary combat experts, medical science and computer simulations, the weapons and techniques of a given warrior are variously tested on dummies made of bones and ballistic gel, pig carcasses, and other, rather gruesome hybrids, and the results plugged into a computer. While parts often feel contrived, the show is like crack to military history geeks like myself. I have so far watched showdowns between a Maori warrior and Shaolin monk, Viking berserker and samurai, ninja and Spartan hoplite, Commanche and Mongol, and Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun.

Afterward, I reflected that the explosion of specialty cable stations catering to niche audiences has really facilitated the growth and spread of reality TV, though generally speaking a different species than you find on the major networks. The networks are generally attracted to the Survivor / American Idol form I discussed in my previous post on this subject, i.e. the competitive elimination show. Specialty cable tends to be all over the place, to the point where what has become known as "reality TV" shades into what I think we still term human interest—cooking shows, design shows, mini-documentaries, and the like. One only has to look at the Food Network however (as I do, frequently) to see the influence reality TV has exerted. When I started watching the Food Network some ten years ago, when it was in its infancy, it was principally cooking shows hosted by well-established chefs, with a handful of endearingly gimmicky shows tossed in for good measure (I really wish they'd rerun Two Fat Ladies). While some actual chefs remain, more often than not the shows have moved from straightforward this-is-how-to-cook shows to shows with a novelty basis or a competitive edge. Perennial Food TV favourite Bobby Flay is exemplary in this regard: one can chart the trajectory of his original show Grilling and Chilling, a straightforward cooking demonstration, to the most recent Throwdown, in which he travels around challenging chefs to a contest in cooking their signature dishes. Throw into the mix Top Chef, The Next Food Network Star, Iron Chef America, Chopped, The Ultimate Food TV Challenge, among others, and you have an impressive array of competition/elimination shows.

All this, incidentally, is not to complain. I'm still an avid Food Network viewer, and certainly will be as long as Alton Brown has a home there. This is just an observation of reality TV's rather invidious influence.

To return however to Deadliest Warrior ... watching that show, I had two big thoughts: (1) I lose interest rather quickly once the warriors involved employed firearms (such as in the Jesse James vs. Al Capone episode, or the Waffen SS vs. Viet Cong), and I wonder if I am not alone in this regard. Perhaps gunpowder is too contemporary for the military history geek in me; or perhaps the necessary distance between warriors that guns introduces makes the exercise less interesting. After all, and this was thought (2): the grim skill set required for the hand-to-hand combat that was the standard for the vast majority of human military history makes the differences in weaponry at points in the past more acute.

I must admit that there is something fascinating about the up close and personal warfare that predated modernity, and that's not merely my own vaguely creepy predilection—I'd argue that a great deal of the appeal of fantasy fiction derives from the appeal of sword-and-armour warfare. However, the more I've watched Deadliest Warrior, the more I've thought that it is of a piece with a significant sub-genre of the kind of reality TV one sees (most frequently) on the Discovery Network.

There have been a relatively small but still noteworthy number of series that feature a particular brand of working-class jobs. What kind of brand? The über-masculine, of course. The most popular of these is Deadliest Catch, which is now in its sixth season. For the uninitiated, Deadliest Catch follows a group of boats fishing for crab off Alaska. There is a limited window each season for Alaskan King Crab, and it happens to be during some of the worst winter weather, which is a recipe for crews working up to thirty-six hours at a go in freezing, dangerous conditions. A frequent theme deals with which people (that is to say: men) have the strength and stamina to do the job, versus those who do not. Just for good measure, many of the boats have a little father-son drama thrown in as well, usually with the boat's owner agonizing over whether his son "has what it takes" to take over the family business, or whether it should be bequeathed to the loyal first mate who has showed his chops over many years of service.

Deadliest Catch is however just the most popular example. There is also American Loggers, all about the manly profession of treecutting; Salvage Code Red, which follows the dangerous lives of people who salvage ships on the brink of sinking or being broken up in a storm; Oil, Sweat, & Rigs, whose description reads in part "Oil riggers work at the limits of human endurance, in difficult and sometimes terrifying conditions"; Black Gold, another oil-rig based show; and the one with my favourite title, Ice Road Truckers, whose tagline is "Take an adrenaline-pumping ride on one of the most dangerous roads in the world."

To be sure, these shows comprise a tiny fraction of the reality television on offer, but there are enough of them to now constitute their own sub-genre. And they are striking enough in their representations of a particular form of masculinity to raise the question of just what kind of lack they symbolically address?

The machismo on display in these shows is a specifically working-class version: the manly men populating these shows are not pretty or attractive, and care nothing for that; they are more often than not family men, away from their wives and children for the express purpose of supporting those wives and children; they are defined by their work, which is itself defined as the intersection of extreme physicality and extreme competence; and while they are not "elite" in the common sense the word is used lately (i.e. brainy Ivy League Easterners), they are elite in their unapologetic meritocracy, in which you are only as good as your ability to get the job done.

Now, I should add the caveat that (a) I don't mean to suggest that these jobs are mere artifice—whatever the sensationalism created by making them the subject of reality TV shows, the abilities and skills on display are real, and (b) I could never do any of these jobs (being "elite" in the milquetoast sense). Nevertheless, the shows exhibit a romantic and idealized conception of working-class labour and blue-collar ethic in a culture that has almost entirely devalued working-class existence. There was a time when there was a certain respect accorded the lunch-pail labourer (however much that respect was itself illusory), and the blue-collar individual had a place as a common character in popular culture. While that may be the case these days for the occasional sitcom (King of Queens, for example, or Roseanne), what working-class figures make it onto the small screen usually embody something more than a nine-to-five, simple and honest paycheque ethic—cops, for example, or firefighters (Rescue Me, Third Watch), whose jobs are who the characters are. When a character's career fades into a series' background noise, it is usually something white collar or vaguely office-related and well-paying.

I can't figure out if these manly-job shows simply express nostalgia for straightforward, "honest" work, or reflect a deeper anxiety. They do seem to be of a piece with the various crises of masculinity that infected the 1990s—presumably, Tyler Durden would approve of any man making a living on a crab boat or ice road truck. But they are also symptomatic, I would argue, of a uniquely American schizophrenia for which Sarah Palin is the most extreme example: that is, a valorization of "ordinary," "real," or "authentic" America, typically defined in contradistinction to "liberal," "elite" America (which is presumably inhabited by snobs with Ivy League educations sipping their lattes while scheming about how to tax "real" America). That this figuration is nativist and deeply anti-intellectual is obvious, and nothing new. But it also manages to celebrate this illusion of ordinary Americans at the very same time as it expresses contempt for anyone earning less than six figures. Just four posts ago, I commented on Ben Stein's dismissal of those thrown out of work by the current recession as "people with poor work habits and poor personalities"—whereas in reality, it is the "ordinary" Americans whose corner Sarah Palin and the Tea Party are ostensibly who suffer most in the current economic climate, and who potentially benefit the most from letting the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy expire.

I don't mean to suggest that Deadliest Catch is therefore a pernicious expression of American conservatism, but rather that it is symptomatic of a flawed attempt to imagine a sort of "authentic" American masculinity. Which doesn't mean I won't watch it when it's on. Or Deadliest Warrior, for that matter.