Monday, November 16, 2015

The Dangers of Entertainment

Around the time the David Foster Wallace biopic, The End of the Tour, came out, heated discussion of its representation of Wallace's views on irony and entertainment led me to reread his long essay "E Unibus Pluram."  The majority of the essay focuses on the effect of mass media on literature and the prevailing literary mode of irony for irony's sake, and how this mode is becoming inadequate.  It also makes some observations about how we interact with television, the first being rather self-evident, that we emotionally invest ourselves in the characters, which provides a sense of belonging, of camaraderie, and that this vicarious version of these emotions comes at the cost of real interpersonal relationships.  The second point, one that Wallace doesn't follow up on, is the idea that television flatters the audience.  Referring to a Pepsi ad making fun of mass consumerism, Wallace writes that "[the ad] invites Joe into an in-joke the Audience is the butt of.  It congratulates Joe Briefcase, in other words, on transcending the very crowd that defines him." I would argue that this method of flattery is endemic in the majority of television programs, both scripted and 'reality.'

Flattery, simply put, is telling someone something nice about themselves, with the connotation that what's being told is exaggerated, effusive, undeserved, and/or simply false.  It's also lovely to be on the receiving end, especially if you think the flatterer is sincere.  Beyond the vicarious relationships mentioned in the first paragraph, I think most television programs, and a large portion of all entertainment, falls into one of two categories, positive flattery and negative flattery.  Positive and negative here referring not to a moral or practical good/bad judgement, but rather a statement about a quality the consumer possesses (e.g. "You're smart, just like the detectives on this show") or a statement about a quality the consumer lacks (e.g. "you're not narcissistic like these real housewives").  What both of these forms of flattery do is provide the consumer with a sense of accomplishment, of being a good person, of figuring out a mystery, all by doing nothing more than staring at a screen for thirty minutes to an hour.  And the concerning thing is that we are naturally inclined to like accomplishing things.  Solving puzzles, finishing a task of any kind, it gives us a nice little mental boost of happiness and contentment.  And much television is produced with this goal in mind.

The best example of positive flattery in television I can think of comes from the crime procedural.  Anyone who has watched a handful of episodes will likely be able to figure out who the bad guy is before the show is even half-finished.  That is, you figure it out before the detectives, or the scientists, or the math genius, or whatever gimmick the particular procedural has, regardless, before the successful and brilliant protagonist figures out what's going on, you've already figured it out.  So, first you get that little burst of happy brain chemicals for solving a puzzle, then you get the satisfaction of watching the brilliant people trying to figure out what you already know.  What feels to me to be particularly disingenuous about the whole thing is that these shows are edited and filmed in such a way as give the viewer clues early and often, but this is done in a way that tries to hide itself.  Unlike Columbo, which started by explicitly telling the audience who the bad guy was, most modern crime procedurals do essentially the same thing, but more subtly.  The most common method is one I call Chekhov's Shoehorn.  Whereas Chekhov's gun is an admonition to remove any details that won't be important later, producers of crime procedurals work backwards and shoehorn in long dramatic shots of objects or people in the background precisely because they'll be important later.  When paying attention to this, there might as well be bright yellow subtitles flashing the words "IMPORTANT!" throughout the scene.  This information is in reality handed to the consumer on a platter, but is presented disingenuously, with a false nonchalance, as if the camera just happened to linger on the fireplace grating or the special guest star lurking in the shadows.  This is far from the only means by which the crime procedural quietly gives the solution to the consumer.  Timing and formula are important; the bad guy isn't going to get caught before the first commercial break, the detectives' first theory is always wrong, etc. etc. There are rules built into the genre, and these rules are picked up intuitively by the consumer, creating a framework in which they can know more than the brilliant detectives, solve crimes faster, and feel a sense of accomplishment.  But these rules are only valid within this framework.  All that is accomplished, all that can be accomplished, is a better ability to navigate and use this framework and its rules. Thus watching it gives you a sense of achievement, but what you've achieved is only useful for watching more procedurals.

Negative flattery tends to be primarily in the realm of "reality" television.  People talk about watching television ironically, or of watching it for the same reason people slow down to see a gory car wreck. The Jerry Springer Show, Jersey Shore, any of the Real Housewives franchises, while there are those that fully identify with the casts, many watch to ridicule.  There are more blatant examples, series of essentially clipshows titled "World's Dumbest..." where the ellipses is filled with everything from criminals to holidays to tourists, all of whom are mocked by C-list comedians. In my view, these shows can be broken into two categories: those that inspire mockery, and those that inspire righteous indignation.  World's Dumbest... is a good example of the former, because the whole point is to mock, to laugh at how stupid other people are.  But of course the consumer isn't stupid, not like these guys.  The show promises that there are a whole lot of morons out there, so join us in laughing at them, because after all we aren't stupid.  The other category, righteous indignation, can be seen with something like the Real Housewives, Keeping up with the Kardashians, Jerry Springer, or The Simple Life.  This last is a the epitome of a pretty major reality tv subgenre: Terrible Rich People.  The whole point is that they lead a life of extreme wealth and privilege, yet are shallow, callous, and condescending to those they consider beneath them.  With Jerry Springer or Maury we can be disgusted with people who cheat, or we could just look at Cheaters.  Toddlers in Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo are as geared to an audience looking to jeer the child beauty pageant industry as it is to the industry's devotees.  The dangerous thing about righteous indignation is that it lets us feel righteous when all we really are is indignant.  That merely finding something awful can be transmuted into a feeling of personal goodness is a powerful tool when used to inspire action, but here it is used only to get you to watch the next episode.

I mentioned earlier that these trends are not exclusive to television, which is true.  The internet is rife with this, but with a major bias towards negative flattery.  Countless blogs, "news" sites, special interest forums, etc., are dedicated to deriding those of opposing opinions, and they operate in the same fashion. The message: Look at how stupid, disgusting, or evil these other guys are. We see this on every side of every spectrum.  Like tv shows, websites live and die based on the number of consumers.  

I don't mean to imply that all television is flattering entertainment, or even that entertainment is necessarily bad.  To bring this back to The End of the Tour, Wallace compares watching television to masturbating:
"I’m not saying TV is bad or a waste of your time. Any more than, you know, masturbation is bad or a waste of your time. It's a pleasurable way to spend a few minutes. But if you're doing it twenty times a day, if your primary sexual relationship is with your own hand, then there's something wrong."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Digital Humanities and the 2016 Election

I've previously mentioned the advent of digital humanities, especially in regards to measuring ebb and flow of positive and negative words.  The New York Times has done something similar, but with the presidential candidates on a scale of positive/negative and simple/complex, while also including the books closest to them on this matrix.  That Trump's language is the simplest, by a significant margin, is not surprising.  In fact, his placement is directly above The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (a novel narrated by an uneducated thirteen year old) and slightly below the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson.  To be fair, this is a man whose most lasting contribution to English letters was a two-word catchphrase.  The positive/negative spectrum is more interesting, especially when you look within a party.  The democratic candidates are interesting in that they form almost a mirror image, with O'Malley just a hair from the center line, and Sanders and Clinton equidistant from the origin on the negative and positive sides, respectively.  It's not difficult to see how this corresponds to their rhetorical style, with Sanders spending more time focusing on what's wrong and why we need to fix it, while Clinton is more focused on saying how things will improve.  

It's an interesting article, and provides a neat visualization of political rhetoric.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Christopher Walken's "The Raven"

Just in time for Halloween, here's a reading of Poe's classic poem "The Raven," read by none other than Christopher Walken:

Monday, October 26, 2015

Review: Krakatoa by Simon Winchester

I wrote briefly about an aspect of Winchester's popular history book last week, but I wanted to do a fuller review.

Despite the book's subtitle, The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, comparatively little is about the eruption itself.  Winchester, who was a geologist before he became a journalist, goes into depth on the geological, ecological, and political history of the region surrounding Krakatoa, which lies in the Sunda Strait, between Sumatra and Java (or rather lied, until the eponymous date when it blew itself up and crumbled into the sea).  Most complaints I've seen about the book have been in regards to Winchester's digressive narration, but this is in keeping with one of the major themes in the book, which is Krakatoa's position as one of the first truly global modern events.  Global here being used in the McCluhan "global village" sense, as news of the eruption spread worldwide in hours via underseas telegraphy.  The effects of the eruption are as important to the story as the eruption itself.

More than just emphasizing the global nature of the event, Winchester's digressions tend to focus on the tangential but necessary results of the circumstances that made the eruption possible in the first place, from the strange biodiversity of the Malay archipelago (to the west of the Wallace line the islands are exclusively inhabited by Asian flora and fauna, while to the east is exclusively Australian. At their closest, these islands are only a handful of miles apart.  This odd ecosystem is the result of one tectonic plate moving west from Australia and another moving east from India) to the mythology of the native Indonesians.  But Winchester also likes to point out the neat coincidence, the way things affect or merely reflect each other.  Krakatoa wasn't just a volcano that erupted one day.  The eruption, what led up to it, why it was so well recorded, our attempts to understand it, one of these stories cannot be told without the others.  Winchester's approach to history is not one of discrete events occurring in sequence, but of thousands of events, happening simultaneously, all, to some degree, affecting each other.  Digression, then, is not a foible to be forgiven, but a necessary trait of this kind of history.  

Of course, those turning to Krakatoa primarily for descriptions of the eruption itself and its immediate aftermath will be disappointed.  The book is more accurately about the total history of the island of Krakatoa, not just "the day the world exploded."  As such, everything from movements of the lithosphere to Dutch colonialism need to be addressed.  Nevertheless, Winchester manages to consistently bring the story back to the titular volcano as it geared up for its big day.

If you're the type of person who likes to hop from idea to idea, and discover connections between disparate subjects (even if the connections are merely semantic), this is the type of history book that will be right up your alley.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A book by any other title

Some titles are easy to translate.  Austen's Emma or Tolstoy's Anna Karenina can just be transliterated from one alphabet to another.  Some cases are a little more difficult, but still pretty simple.  Just go for a literal translation.  But other times, whether for marketing or artistic reasons I can't be sure, the changes are a bit more interesting. While trying to improve my Spanish on duolingo, I was on the Spanish language Wikipedia page for William Golding, a page which included his bibliography, including his novel Close Quarters which, in Spanish, is titled Cuerpo a cuerpo ("Body to Body").  This was a pretty neat translation, and reminded me of something I'd been meaning to look up.  At a panel at the Festival of Books, Jonathan Lethem remarked on the strange titles his Italian publishers gave his books.  For example, his sci-fi/noir pastiche, Gun, with Occasional Music is known as Concerto per Archi e Kanguro (Concerto for Strings and Kangaroo), As She Climbed Across the Table is Oggetto Amoroso non Identificato (Unidentified Love Object) and, most perplexing, Men and Cartoons is given the title A Ovest dell'Inferno (West of Hell).

It seems like loose translations of titles may be a trend in Italian publishing.  While the Spanish translation of The Grapes of Wrath is pretty literal (Las Uvas de la Ira), the Italians pared it down to just Furore.

Furore is basically Rage or Fury (at least that's what the internet tells me), so I went to see if the Italian edition of Stephen King's early pseudonymous novel Rage shared this title on Roman bookshelves.  It doesn't.  For some reason, the translated title is the Ossessione (Obsession (obviously)).

This led me to look at another King title, The Stand, which is admittedly a rather subdued title for a novel about a civilization ending disease and ensuing holy war.  The Spanish translation at least makes sense in this regard.

But, though it's been a while since I've read this, I think the Italian title, L'ombra dello Scorpione (The Shadow of the Scorpion) is a complete non-sequitur:

Here's a fun game, I'll give you a few foreign titles (and their English translations) and you guess what notable English language work they refer to:

1. Un Mundo Feliz (A Happy World)

2. Schiavo d'amore (Slave of Love)  

3. La Senda del Perdedor (Loser's Lane)

4. Pânico (Panic)


1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

2. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

3. Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

4. Something Happened by Joseph Heller

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Thoughts on what I'm reading

I'm currently reading Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (Harper, 2003) by Simon Winchester.  It's great, but something struck me as I was reading it, that speaks back to some issues I'd had with others and my own writing, specifically, how to deal with an audience with varying levels of knowledge in the subject you're discussing.  Winchester, originally trained as a geologist before becoming a journalist in the late 1960s, has to deal with this here.  Discussing the biodiversity and geology of Krakatoa necessitate a discussion of natural selection and plate tectonics.  The problem is that much of his audience will be well-versed in these subjects (i.e. the type of people who will actively seek out a book about Krakatoa) while many others will know little to nothing of the matter. So what do you do?  If you elide this information, you confuse the latter group, but if you go into detail, you bore the former.  Winchester manages to have his cake and eat it too.  What he does is couch the theory in anecdote, for example, explaining natural selection through the life and career of Alfred Russel Wallace.  While some points are necessarily dry (there's no other way to explain how a transform-fault functions than to just dive in) Winchester essentially manages to give the people who are already aware of the underlying theory something else to focus on while presenting the theory itself to those who don't know it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Masquerade and the Treasure Hunt That Drove Readers Insane

If you spend any amount of time online, you'll have run into numerous conspiracy theorists.  They'll point from bystanders in the background of news footage, to arcane symbolism on currency, to scenes from blockbuster movies, and explain just how all these things fit together to prove that the government is secretly behind every natural and man-made disaster, ever.   But it isn't just world events that can spur this apophenic obsession.  In 1979, artist Kit Williams published Masquerade, which became a bestseller, not just on the strength of its artwork, but because the artwork contained clues to an actual buried treasure: a golden hare wrought by Williams.  Hazlitt has a great retrospective article on the lengths people went to to find the treasure, and the details of some particularly obsessed seekers.  "Afterwards, on the way to the pub, he checked the names written on the sides of the vans, looking for the author's response... He had finally realized that the author possessed a listening device that could detect vibrations from his typewriter keyboard."