et al.—issue I February 2014
Copyright ©2014 et al. magazine. All Rights Reserved. www.etal-magazine.tumblr.com
Sounds Like English by Erica Min
Malala Who? by Annie Juergens Behr
The Library is Open: Reading Camp back into RuPaulâ€™s Drag Race by Alyea Canada
Taste Anxiety by Joseph Staten
Fyodor CK by Grace Sloan
Pieces of the Earth by Isaac Betters
The Trouble with Her by Michael Dobson
A Letter to the Editor
The essays that follow were crafted by my fellow comrades in their own distinctive styles of criticism and analysis. I think here I am supposed to have some generalized statement about our brilliantly curated pieces or suggest a throughline to keep in mind while reading to have some sort of continuity through this inaugural issue. Instead, we present here a group of writers who have the temerity to publish our own voices investigating something curious that took hold of our attention. We are not writing to be filed into a news site’s archive. We are not writing for an institution. After a few drinks and long digressive conversations, we came together to create a space to work on our intellectual stuff. A place to circulate our various research projects. A willing and attentive atmosphere of intellectually curious generalists looking to write outside the vacuum of university papers. A need to make accessible the tangled well-read migraine that is symptomatic of graduate school. Perhaps we are taking up the task of public intellectuals. In this issue you will find: Manic neurosis about writing in academia. Malala Yousafzai as our newest political celebrity seen but unheard. Sontag’s camp celebration of RuPaul’s ruse. Skepticism about Middlebrow taste from McDonald’s 1950s to our present. Dostoevsky painfully laughing at Louis CK. A glimmer of faith’s light in Heart of Darkness. Our millennial generation’s man-child in love with Her. We invite our readers to join our conversations in what we find through our thinking and writing. Something plainly trending through our social existence that would be worth articulating how and why. Something unnoticed that could be debated with seriousness and booze.
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interns: Annie Juergens Behr Isaac Betters Alyea Canada Michael Dobson Erica Min Grace Sloan Joseph Staten design intern: Camille Gervais art intern: Ed Mumford
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Academia, as it’s run in the States, is a bloodsport. —Jim Miller There is a charming allure to the undebatable authority of an academic text written in dry, dense, difficult prose, published in print. Produced by godly university publishers for us mere mortals to read, covet, and spend years toiling through student debt, to someday publish our own exegesis of this analytical deconstruction of some white dude’s meta-philosophical crypto-political reading of the most nuanced understanding of this season’s groundbreaking definition of philosophy. Replace ‘philosophy’ with art, capitalism, modernism, history, individualism, progress, freedom, or Hegel, or Marx. Pick any field in academia that suits your fancy. Find one that really gets you going; one that turns you on. Any mountain of books that seems steep enough for this semester’s climb is your new “research project.” Lust after the authors long dead and gone who have written marvelously esoteric words that are now carved in stone under the gilded tile: THE WESTERN CANON.
This will be your new scripture. The theses you chant to yourself. The volumes of interpretation that you will will yourself to grasp fully, in the hope that one day the sovereignty from which these words came can be heard in your modest proposal to put pen to paper. Or in our age, fingers to keys. Welcome to academia. Of course, we know you know the prerequisites to all of this, but let’s spell it out anyway: a working knowledge of all viral articles across facebook, twitter, tumblr, pocket, buzzfeed, gawker, blogger, cyworld, livejournal, myspace, vice, academia.edu, n+1, and pitchfork since the dawn of the internet. Please be able to quote from various news sources, and by various we mean at least fifteen, including but not limited to: NYT, NYP, NR, TNI, TN, NYRB, LARB, CNN, FOX, TSA, PR, J, D, C, HP, NBC, USAT, BBC, ABC1. You know2, so we like, know that you’re like, in the know and stuff. Please have with you at all times: A capacity to consume at least five books a week, cover to cover; four novels and one theoretical sermon. The ability to write clear, innovative, original expositions on any given
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academic text. The audacity to know.3 An ego ideal which interrupts the discussion in every seminar adding vivid comments to spark conversation with ineluctable charm. Then when the most incompetent student sitting across from you shares a personal anecdote that is marginally relevant to the conversation at hand, be able to throw down and tear their sentimentality limb from limb; do not desist until blood has finish dripping from your lips. Teach like the ruthless academic you wish to be, not the one you are. A familiarity with most American and a few French or German idioms. The humor to recognize allusions to mass cultural objects and trends such as, John Coltrane, the Moonies, Lyndon Johnson, M*A*S*H, Jackie Curtis. An intellectual history of art, science, and politics that you can pull out of your back pocket. In your mid-twenties, from your smorgasbord of educational disciplines, have had the same number of mentors that praised you with encouragement as ones that fueled your ambition with discipline. English is your second language? LOL You don’t know what to specialize in? YOLO You find most canonical texts to be classist, racist, and sexist? SORRYNOTSORRY You adjust the way you speak. You now address your classmates and peers in an understood etiquette of respectability proper to a university setting. WINNING You abandon any kind of identity politics because if you wanted to write about that you should’ve gone into Ethnic & Minority Studies or Queer Theory. IGNANT YAASSS You learn the jargon, know the shorthand, make the Lacan jokes, which are really Freud jokes. BALLIN Years later, degrees in hand, your prolific exuberance can now be unleashed as you begin your career as a Public Intellectual that no one has ever heard of. You have the freedom to write in a clear accessible vernacular that any non-specialized academic can read and find pleasure in. Finally, write in this voice you’ve cultivated while laboring through academic intellectualism, after presenting papers at various conferences, then be aplauded by your professors who are now your colleagues. NOFILTER4
Either by writing in highly formalized obfuscated jargon or by writing in a creative colloquial prose, each academic seeks to engage their audience through a learned tradition. I am elated by the prospect of learning this spectrum of languages to communicate in various forms, without being able to say anything because no one can understand what I am saying. For writing to one audience necessarily alienates another. There is no room for the poetry of broken english in academic writing, other than as the object of its study. Is that not what I am doing here? The stuffy complexity of austere academic prose carries a beautiful rhetoric in its syntax that reflects the content of the essay through its formal limitations. How do I share this mind blowing beauty with a general readership? I find myself at an impasse. Writing a single piece to addresses both ends of this spectrum would require an attention-deficit schizophrenia as its form. Something with enough stand alone subordinate clauses to accent the independent clause. Repeated conjunctions to mirror speech, as well as planted meta-commentary to clarify what one had argued. We want entertainment while advancing an argument. Then the objective is pleasure or clarity; poetry or analytic discourse; Orwell or Adorno.5 How to proceed? My anxiety around academic writing comes from this disorientation. At once deeply inspired and utterly disillusioned, I recognize this enterprise to become an academic scholar and hurl myself towards this impossible project at full speed. Do you know what i am saying? In my own pendulum swing between critical and prosaic language, I was surprised to find my identity politics repeatedly brought to my attention. Perhaps this is a bit of paranoia in entering a largely straight white male institution. IDK but IDGAF There are times when I speak in class or when I write that I feel my identity has colored what I am trying to say. More specifically, that my gender, race, class background frame my words and distract from the thought I am trying to express. The surprise on my peers’ faces that my English is unaccented and that I can speak like the straight white man discourages me. For idioms in speech do not come naturally to me, and when I do not catch obvious references to mass cultural objects a deep embarrassment flushes over my face, for I did not inherit this historical tradition growing up. Why was Bob Dylan so great? Why is the sound of cicadas
Sounds Like English
singing beautiful? Is football really soccer? The grammatical misuse of a conjunction betrays in my syntax the pedestrian nature of my learned language. My pain and anxiety around vernacular language, academic prose, and written words comes from the incommunicable wonder I have for my peers, who can not recognize their white male privilege in inheriting a form of communication that anyone should be able to understand: the King’s English. To put the image more strongly: when I speak in class I feel that a large gong goes off in the background. Geishas begins to walk in the classroom gracefully serving tea to my classmates. Miyazaki dragons fly around over our heads as I try to swim through an ocean of fortune cookies to make my point about the topic we are discussing that day. Sakura flowers begin to fall from the pages of my notebook and my peers are so distracted by the thousand origami cranes filling the room that they are not listening to my rebuttal from the conversation we had just been having. I am screaming to try to get my point across but a pansori band enters banging traditional Korean drums that overpower anything that could be heard. Various delivery men and dry cleaning business owners come in and press my professor’s shirt while feeding him dumplings. Now I have resigned in trying to make my point and I am only screaming the letters L and R over and again, as these rounded Ls and relaxed elongated Rs are the most dangerously mispronounced in Korean accented English. But wait, is this bok choy? I am not insisting that because my ancestors come from a long line of dragons and monks that use their mind to levitate and set fire to paper, that I don’t have a fair shot in being our next great american scholar. Perhaps I am simply drawing attention to6 an unacknowledged narrative in university institutions. Or rather, trying to make intelligible7 the experience of language as competing authorities acknowledge l egitimacy in certain vernaculars while dismissing others, which then alienates those who were not indoctrinated into an aristocracy of academics.8 JA FEEL? Instead of code switching in this way, I have been told to simply write in my own voice. Without esoteric references to past texts or exoteric platitudes to further swamp internet streams, I am to write as I speak.
Through this clarity of writing, I can demonstrate a clarity of thought in expressing my idea. But what is this voice? And what if I do simply write the way I speak but no one can understand what I am saying because it does not take up a previously recognizable vernacular? I am speaking English right? So why is it so difficult for you to understand what I am saying? Or rather why is it so difficult for you to take seriously what I am saying? Do I not sound white, male, or straight enough? What authority do I speak from? Am I not rehearsed enough in academic english? Am I missing a historical inheritance that teaches a general awareness about popular culture? SMH There’s just not enough Foucault9 in this essay. This chafing opposition between these various forms of writing forces me to take pause for fear of being misunderstood or worse, unheard. Since the ideal of a universal language remains an ideal, the audacity to write must come of my desire to communicate. You know? When my father speaks English, he often says a word that sounds similar to the word he is really trying to say. For phonetic sounds and meanings have merged closely together making distinctions between words difficult especially when looking for the right known, accenting, or vigor10 at the speed of speech. It is as though he grabs for a word where he last left it, but not finding it there, he takes another term he finds close by. Already when trying to maintain a natural American cadence, as well as a simple articulation of thought, an added burden of searching for the right term infuriates him while trying to collage all these distracting sentiments into a singular thought. He will put differently or in other words or rephrase this paraphrasing as some reiterated conclusion of what came before. The scaffolding of his argument based on his insecurity around language becomes padded with repetition and recapitulation to make his argument more sound. Content devolves into pure form. It is phenomenal. This minor irritation begins as a simmer but when the intensity of his idea heightens or an emphasis is needed to clarify his expression, it escalates into a violently poetic conflagration to be understood. He tries to employ the help of half heard metaphors, more foreign idioms, finally resolving to tell a story to illustrate his point. All rhetoric, no argument. His listener is left exhausted,
Sounds Like English
barraged with some beginnings to a thesis that they could perhaps draw conclusions from. But really left with nothing more than some ashes of a desperate desire to be heard. Erica Min
Notes 1. The New York Times, New York Post, The New Republic, The New Inquiry, The Nation, New York Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, Cable News Network, Fox, The Seven Arts, Paris Review, Partisan Review, Jacobin, Dissent, Huffington Post, National Broadcasting Corporation, United States of America Today. 2. “You know” a compulsive tick in one’s speech purposed to affirm comprehension by the listener. 3. Kant, Horace, Foucault. 4. Entertaining interjections are used to keep the readers attention and to hopefully express a poetry of personality through its candor. 5. See James Miller, “Is Bad Writing Necessary?,” Linguafranca, (January 2000) 6. “drawing attention to” a common sign post used in academic papers to let the reader know that the thesis is coming. 7. “trying to make intelligible” another common sign post used in academic writing to clarify the ambitions of one’s thought. And though it pleads to “make intelligible” or better comprehensible the project at hand, it usually followed by a sentence that further obfuscates the thesis. 8. Like this one. 9. Replace with Karl, Jacques, or Søren. yea, we’re on a first name basis. 10. noun, adjective, or verb.
Sounds like English
In November 2013, on stage at Carnegie Hall for Glamour’s Women of the Year Awards, Lady Gaga announced that Glamour made a mistake putting her on the cover of the most recent issue. Stark in her exaggerated white makeup and white retro-Victorian jacket, and perched on massive gem-studded heels— like a recently departed steampunk princess teetering before the pearly gates—Gaga said: “Who really belongs on the cover, it’s not me. If I could forfeit my cover, I would give it to Malala.” She was referring to Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who had been featured in numerous stories about her advocacy for girls’ education in Swat, Pakistan, and who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in an assassination attempt in October 2012. At the Glamour Awards, Yousafzai was the most frequently mentioned award recipient. When she came to the stage, a group of young women from the audience stood and yelled in unison, “We love you, Malala. Thank you.” Enthusiastic receptions have become routine for Yousafzai, as she explains in her memoir, “I Am Malala”
(Little Brown, 2013, co-authored with Christina Lamb). By the time she regained consciousness in Birmingham, England, where she was taken to recover after surgery, the hospital was mobbed with journalists. Her parents, who were in Pakistan trying desperately to arrange to go to Birmingham to meet her, experienced mysterious delays with their travel documents. They later learned that it may have been because the Pakistani Interior Minister wanted to go with them to hold a press conference when they arrived. Politicians and public figures from all over the world appeared at the hospital. Thousands of cards were delivered to her hospital room, including notes from Beyoncé and Angelina Jolie. One envelope was addressed to “Malala, Birmingham Hospital” and another to “The Girl Shot in the Head, Birmingham Hospital.”1 After Yousafzai was released from the hospital in January 2013, media coverage continued. In April, she was named one of Time’s most influential people in the world. In July, the United Nations held a youth summit on her birthday, and dubbed it “Malala Day” in honor of universal education. Kirsten Gillibrand, Forest Whitaker, Arianna Huffington, Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Mia Farrow, and the U.S. State Department
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tweeted about it at #MalalaDay. Yousafzai was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and in October on the day the prize was to be announced, she met with the Obamas at the White House. (The prize was awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.) Soon after, Edinburgh University granted her an honorary Master of Arts degree. During this rise to prominence in the United States and the United Kingdom, however, Yousafzai became increasingly controversial in her home country. Commentators reported that the generally widespread sympathy expressed in Pakistan at the time of her shooting turned more mixed over the course of the year.2 On “Malala Day”, as Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations, some Pakistani young people tweeted plays on the words “Malala” and “drama”.3 On NYTimes. com, Huma Yusuf wrote that the critiques of Yousafzai, including among young people “from the urban, middle-class and Internet-savvy set,” could be summarized in three main currents: “Her fame highlights Pakistan’s most negative aspect (rampant militancy); her education campaign echoes Western agendas; and the West’s admiration of her is hypocritical because it overlooks the plight of other innocent victims, like the casualties of U.S. drone strikes.”4 In October, in reaction to Yousafzai’s book tour and in anticipation of the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, negative commentary in Pakistan spiked again both online and offline.5 In the United States, some observers worried that the media’s intense coverage of Yousafzai echoed news coverage of women’s rights in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. Sociology Professor Saadia Toor, of the City University of New York, writing on Tanqeed. com soon after Yousafzai’s shooting, argued that media coverage had already “resurrected the tired arguments about the U.S.A.’s alleged responsibility to protect women’s rights in Af-Pak,” a situation that was especially concerning, she said, in light of continuing drone strikes in Pakistan.6 After September 11, images of burqa-clad women became a staple in the American press. As Carol Stabile and Deepa Kumar show in their 2005 article “Unveiling Imperialism,” numerous statements from Bush administration officials about women’s rights in Afghanistan offered an alternative set of justifications
for the war, which were picked up by eager reporters. Laura Bush argued in a radio address that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” and a State Department report on Afghan women was released the same week. Stabile and Kumar found 15 mainstream newspaper articles about women in Afghanistan in the eighteen months prior to September 11, compared to 93 articles in the four months after, most about wearing the burqa or women’s education.7 Yousafzai’s image, as presented in the American media, does seem to continue this trend—her face and name quickly embody women’s rights and women’s education in opposition to the Taliban in Pakistan. In articles and TV spots, descriptions of her story often take on a skeletal quality of raw emotion and morality. As one commentator on Foxnews.com wrote, summarizing what Yousafzai symbolizes: “Malala has, indeed, put a face on the threat of terrorism, on the absence of women’s rights in radical Muslim countries, on the bloodthirsty mindset of those who hate western ideas —such as education—and on the indomitable courage of a real, modern-day hero.”8 While often stated more delicately than it is on Foxnews.com, the good vs. evil version of Yousafzai’s storyline can be found in American news from across the political spectrum. In November, many sites ran headlines similar to that on PBS.org: “New Pakistani Taliban Leader is Commander Who Oversaw Shooting of Malala Yousafzai.”9 The worry is that this superficial narrative might lodge in the American psyche as an easily retrievable snapshot of the situation in Pakistan, and become— consciously or unconsciously—a justification for military intervention there. Because Yousafzai is seen as a defender of women’s rights, her name and her story could appeal to left and center-left Americans who are otherwise opposed to foreign military intervention. When it comes to depictions of Islam and the Middle East, facile images have a long history. As Edward Said shows in his 1978 book “Orientalism”, Europeans have attempted for hundreds of years to describe the Arabic, Middle Eastern and Islamic worlds. Representations of the “orient” (as Europeans called it)—mysterious, curious, seductive, but also other,
inferior, and monolithic—were repeated and recycled, and were used as justifications for European, and later American, colonialism and imperialism. In the preface to the 25th anniversary edition of the book in 2003, Said was alarmed that his thesis seemed to be more relevant than ever in the context of post-September 11 politics in the United States. President Bush often drew on the language and theories of Bernard Lewis, the scholar who coined the term the “clash of civilizations,” and Said’s quintessential orientalist.10 For Yousafzai, it seems that her representation in the American media is a misrepresentation. When she met President Obama in October, she reported afterwards that she told him: “drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people.” Unfortunately, her statement was carried in relatively few news stories about her White House visit,11 perhaps because the White House’s own account included no mention of it.12 Yousafzai is managed by a public relations firm now. So in that sense she does not fully “manage” her public image. And, her book is not completely her own either, as it was co-written with the journalist Christina Lamb. Still, her book is probably the closest approximation we have for how Yousafzai chooses to represent herself. And her book is delightful. Yousafzai is a balanced, humble, and sometimes humorous narrator for a series of tumultuous years in her life, and the life of her city in northwest Pakistan. She is focused on ways that peace can be achieved in Pakistan, and she sees education as part of the way. Describing her life over the last year, Yousafzai says “when I received prizes for my work at school I was happy, as I had worked hard for them, but these prizes are different. I am grateful for them, but they only remind me of how much work still needs to be done…I don’t want to be thought of as the ‘girl who was shot by the Taliban’ but the ‘girl who fought for education’.”13 Yousafzai aspires to be a politician, and like many other politicians who have memoirs, her book seems intended to inspire and motivate. But she is a likeable motivator. Let’s hope that as time goes on she can wrestle her image back from the media, and use it for her own purposes. They seem likely to be good ones.
In the meantime, Yousafzai’s image continues to spin in the United States. As Lady Gaga said from the stage at the Glamour Awards: “Thank you, Malala, for speaking and saying all the things that you said. As soon as this is over, I am going to go straight to my twitter to tweet about your foundation.” Annie Juergens Behr
Notes 1. Yousafzai, Malala and Christina Lamb, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2013). 2. Omar Waraich, “Pakistan’s Malala Problem: Teen Activist’s Global Celebrity Not Matched at Home”, Time.com, July 15, 2013, http://world.time.com/2013/07/15/ pakistans-malala-problem-teen-activists-global-celebrity-not-matched-at-home ; and Philip Reeves, “Malala, Hailed Around the World, Controversial at Home”, NPR, December 10, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/12/10/249920063/malala-hailedaround-the-world-controversial-at-home/. 3. Waraich, “Pakistan’s Malala Problem”. 4. Huma Yusuf, “About the Malala Backlash”, NYTimes.com, July 18, 2013, http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/the-malala-backlash/#more-10810. 5. Huma Yusuf, “More Malala Malaise”, NYTimes.com, October 9, 2013, http://latitude. blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/09/more-malala-malaise/ , and Salman Masood and Declan Walsh, “Pakistani Girl, a Global Heroine After an Attack, Has Critics at Home, ” New York Times, October 11, 2013. 6. Sadia Toor, “Ask the Right Questions,” Tanqeed.com, November 2012, http://www. tanqeed.org/2012/11/ask-the-right-questions-saadia-toor/. 7. Carol Stabile and Deepa Kumar, “Unveiling Imperialism: media, gender, and the war on Afghanistan”, Media, Culture and Society, 27(2005): 765-782. 8. Lela Gilbert, “Did Nobel Committee Snub Malala Yousafzai because it was afraid to confront radical Islam”, October 11, 2013,http://www.foxnews.com/ opinion/2013/10/11/did-nobel-committee-snub-malala-yousafzai-because-it-fearsradical-islam/ 9. PBS News Desk, “New Pakistani Taliban leader is commander who oversaw shooting of Malala Yousafzai”, November 7, 2013, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/ rundown/2013/11/new-pakistani-taliban-leader-is-commander-who-oversaw-shooting-of-malala-yousafzai.html . 10. Edward Said, Orientalism: 25th Anniversary Edition, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979). 11. Peter Hart, “Drones, the Media and Malala’s Message”, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting website. http://www.fair.org/blog/2013/10/15/drones-the-media-andmalalas-message/#comments. 12. White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Readout of the President and the First Lady’s Meeting with Malala Yousafzai”, October 11, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/ the-press-office/2013/10/11/readout-president-and-first-lady-s-meeting-malalayousafzai. 13. Yousafzai and Lamb, I Am Malala, p. 309.
Reading Camp back into RuPaul’s Drag Race
Two contestants stand on the stage holding hands, awaiting the judge’s decision. Having given all they have there is nothing they can do but wait. “I have made my decision,” the head judge announces shaking back her long blonde hair and sitting up in her chair, “Jujubee shanté you stay, Pandora Boxx sashay away.” Thus ends one of the most controversial episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race1, but this could have been the end of any episode in the series or any talent reality show. However, Drag Race is unique in its combination of the creativity of Project Runway with the (occasional) glamour of America’s Next Top Model. Throw in nine to fourteen drag queens and the result is an incredibly entertaining hour-long camp extravaganza. In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag presents fifty-eight theses intended to aestheticize and codify camp. The essay was one of the first attempts to bring camp out of the underground, and legitimize it as a mainstream sensibility. Many of her jottings are spent musing on the difference between pure camp and deliberate camp—a distinction which only becomes more important as camp creeps further into the mainstream—but most relevant to this essay is Sontag’s description of the essence of camp as “…its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”2
What she calls the essence of camp is also the essence of drag. As drag queens paint their faces, pin on wigs, put on dresses, and tuck their boy-bits they do not create the image of a natural woman, but a caricature of femininity taken to such an extreme as to be fascinating. Indeed this is what is inherently entertaining about drag; everything is in quotation marks. The audience watches a “woman” “sing” and sometimes tell jokes (mostly double entendres and sexual innuendo). Rarely are queens conventionally beautiful, but the over-the-top stylized aesthetics allows the audience to buy into their fantasy. When queens do make beautiful women they play with social definitions of sexual attractiveness and gender. Merely by existing, “fishy” queens challenge definitions of womanly beauty and femininity. We know fishy queens are men and yet they appear to us as sexually attractive women, “...the most refined form of sexual attractiveness…consists in going against the grain of one’s sex…Allied to the Camp for the androgynous is something that seems quite different but isn’t: a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms.” Sontag states that androgyny is camp in and of itself, but I would disagree. Just to appear without an obvious gender identity does not equal camp. The exaggeration
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of traditional gender markers, particularly when put on the wrong sex, is what creates the quotation marks of camp. Androgyny is making a comeback in fashion, with many designers and photographers employing highly feminine looking men and masculine women, and even some working models refusing to choose a gender. However, this trend in fashion is not camp. The fashion industry is not calling on us to question gender markers because there is no attempt at fantasy, nothing about the images are in quotation marks. Instead fashion’s fantasy is more atmospheric than winking. The crux of whether something fits into Sontag’s definition of camp is a question of intention. Sontag states “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.” Drag queens do not seriously think they are women (with the exception of those queens who are transgendered and therefore are women), and present generally comedic shows full of exaggeration; but for the performer drag is a serious art form. Which brings us back to Drag Race; while it follows the format of most talent reality shows: a mini competition, the main challenge, and an elimination—with plenty of catfights in between—it rarely does so with a straight face. At times it seems even RuPaul is barely taking the show seriously and he created it. Instead, the show seems to function more as a space to parody other reality shows than hold a serious contest. SheMail (get it?) replaces the TyraMail of America’s Next Top Model to explain the episode’s theme, dressed as a man RuPaul acts as a mentor along the lines of Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, and appearing as a judge in full drag he takes the place of Heidi Klum (or Tyra Banks), and the rest of the judging panel recalls pretty much any talent reality show. The challenges the queens face are generally tongue-in-cheek including, making an outfit entirely out of candy (directly ripped from Project Runway), numerous photo shoots which generally take place with little notice in unglamorous places such as a tank of water, and season favorite “The Snatch Game” (a take on the Match Game). The flippancy of the judges continues to the runway show in which they laugh and make jokes throughout each contestant’s presentation of their final looks. At first glance this creates a rub with Sontag’s definition of pure camp, however even she acknowledges a grey area,“Perhaps, though, it is not so much a question of the unintended effect versus the conscious intention, as of the delicate relation between parody
and self-parody in Camp.” In creating Drag Race, RuPaul clearly had an eye toward parodying the reality shows it apes, and in doing so calls attention to the ridiculousness of what television is selling as reality. It seems that reality television is at its best read as camp, but most other shows are naive about their camp qualities. Drag Race deliberately places all of its wonderful campiness on full display. Sontag argues, “Successful Camp. . . even when it reveals self-parody, reeks of self-love,” it is obvious throughout all of the giggles and ridiculousness that RuPaul loves the art of drag and the contestants he lovingly refers to as “his girls.” The loving nature of Drag Race’s parody is best emphasized when looking at the first season in comparison with the rest of the series. Besides being filmed with a soft light filter reminiscent of a Saved by the Bell flashback, the show is presented with a (slightly) more straight face than later seasons. Contestants had to make commercials for Viva Glam cosmetics which drew attention to their support of HIV research, make outfits out of thrift and ninety-nine-cent store finds, and perform Destiny’s Child songs as a drag girl group. Sontag describes pure camp as “seriousness that fails… Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.” In this instance, regardless of how serious the challenges were meant (or not) to be, it is unclear if the contestants are aware of Ru’s ruse. Regardless of the amount of passion the contestants bring to the challenges, and how pervasive the fantasy created is, there is really no situation in which the queens won’t look at least a little silly. When comparing the first season to the later ones it is clear that RuPaul realized the moments of unintentional camp from the first season were what drew people into the show, and so those elements became the majority of later episodes. However, what ultimately keeps the show an example of pure camp are the contestants themselves. The contestants of Drag Race make up for any lack of seriousness found in the show’s structure. In fact, it is the earnestness of the contestants that best reveals the campiness of Drag Race (and of reality shows in general), by demonstrating that regardless of the content of the show drag is in fact an art to be taken seriously. The stark contrast between the focus and determination with which contestants approach the challenges and the actual content of the challenge
The Library is Open
is what makes the show work. “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken taltogether seriously because it is ‘too much.’” Drag Race turns this on its head but is no less successful as camp. The show presents itself as “too much” and really can’t be taken completely seriously, but the contestants want to be taken seriously and so approach the show seriously. We can see the quotation marks around the show as a whole, but often the contestants do not. During the show’s downtime there are the inevitable discussions featured in all talent reality shows about how the contestant is in extreme debt, or has a poor or nonexistent relationship with his family, or the revelation of some great personal trauma that drag helped him overcome. These struggles may fuel the contestants drive to win, but do not fully explain a contestant’s unwillingness to just enjoy the fun of Drag Race. Inevitably there is a clash between one contestant (usually a glamour queen) who takes everything far too seriously (even for the other queens) and the (usually comedy) queen who makes the mistake of saying “it’s just drag.” As a viewer you find yourself siding with the second. However, when the bottom two contestants must lip-synch for their lives you see it is never “just drag” to any of the queens. This final two-minute performance is the contestants’ final chance to impress Ru and save their place on the show, and the atmosphere, understandably, is tense. The judges watch intently, there is no laughing or jokes, and the queens are truly in their element, and it seems their actual lives are on the line. For the queens, these two minutes are everything, the culmination of years of work. It is perhaps the only place where the show is not camp. The lip-synch is presented in all seriousness, and the self-parody is stalled. Any camp in the moment comes from the essence of drag itself.
and after; but it also demonstrates how much of femininity on the part of actual women is also a fantasy. But it too is a fantasy presented in all seriousness. “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.” RuPaul’s Drag Race brings to light the seriousness with which drag queens approach the frivolous, but knowing the work behind the quotation marks only enhances the camp. Alyea Canada Photo: Christopher Haney
Notes 1. RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo Television, February 2, 2009-present. 2. All quotes from Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Georgetown University, http:// www.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/sontag-notesoncamp-1964.html.
The attention Drag Race brings to the amount of work and talent that goes into the art of drag illustrates the sincerity that makes it camp. Before watching the show my experience with drag consisted of the films Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, and a few local queens. I had only seen the end fantasy which was camp but perhaps not pure camp. Drag Race allows the audience to see the work that goes into the fantasy, we watch men transform themselves with makeup, foam padding, double stick tape, dresses, and heels. It emphasizes the thing in itself, the offness of drag when you see the before
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It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on—then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. —Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. —Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction Towards the end of “Masscult and Midcult,” Dwight MacDonald’s famous excoriation of American middlebrow culture, MacDonald uses an interesting industrial analogy to describe the public’s relationship to the established canon of “High Culture:” We have, in short, become skilled at consuming High Culture when it has been stamped PRIME QUALITY by the proper authorities, but we lack the kind of sophisticated audience that supported the achievements of the classic avant-garde, an audience that can appreciate and discriminate on its own.1
MacDonald was wrestling with the question of why there was no discernible artistic vanguard in the 1950s, and blamed this lack on the general philistinism which he saw as characterizing public life and opinion, nurtured by the easily digestible but basically vapid productions of ‘Midcult’ art. The problem of the avant-garde’s disappearance is an interesting one, but these days I’m more interested in that stamp—that “PRIME QUALITY” stamp. That image leapt off the page at me when I read MacDonald’s essay for the first time because it’s a beautifully tidy metaphor for a phenomenon that still exists today: the abdication of personal aesthetic judgment in exchange for the judgment of an authority. MacDonald thought there wasn’t an audience able to “appreciate and discriminate” works of art freely and independently. It was an issue, essentially, of intellectual capacity. This may have been true in MacDonald’s ‘50s. I doubt it, but it evidently could be argued. But it would be impossible to argue that this is the case today. My generation, the Millennial generation,
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has more smart, discerning, curious, over-educated folks than it knows what to do with. No—the problem is not that we don’t have an audience capable of discernment, but that we have an audience who freely gives up that power. Why? — There is, among us young people today, an acute anxiety. I don’t mean anxiety about finding a job (though there is that), or about “finding oneself” (though there is that too). I mean anxiety about taste; anxiety about preference; anxiety about liking the “right things.” “Good taste,” or at least the facsimile thereof, is at an all-time premium, and as a result the culturallyinclined among us tend to be extremely alert to what the critical (or historical) apparatus has deemed good or bad. We’re perfectly comfortable singing the praises of any properly-canonized Godard film, but if the recent Hollywood movie we sincerely enjoyed gets panned by the proper authorities (the New Yorker and the AV Club hated it?!), we might need to mark it a “guilty pleasure” when it comes up in conversation. Or else we might just relinquish our opinion entirely. But what is that “critical apparatus” today, the judgments of which are sacrosanct? This was a central problem for MacDonald, who viewed the discourse of cultural criticism as perhaps the most important piece of the public enlightenment puzzle (a common view among cultural critics, it must be noted). MacDonald described the ecosystem of critical publications, magazines and weeklies mostly, as the “center of consciousness” for the intellectual world. If the British had found theirs, in MacDonald’s estimation, in the “intelligent weeklies,” we Millennials have certainly found ours today: the Midcult blogosphere. A liberal, well-educated young person in 2014 can’t open Facebook or Twitter without being bombarded with the latest cultural “thinkpieces” from the circle of middlebrow online publications which are stunningly analogous to the “little magazines” MacDonald constantly refers to. Slate, Salon, and various of the Gawker websites are some of the most oft-linked-to; a few survivors, like the Atlantic, are literally the same ones MacDonald lists.
Often the pieces from these websites, whether commenting on TV, politics, music, or whatever, are decent; once in a while they’re fantastic; the bulk of them, alas, probably make poor Dwight spin in his grave. But regardless of their quality, they seem to be driving the discourse for a certain segment of the educated public, probably in much the same way that MacDonald saw the little magazines doing in his day— with the main difference being that popular culture, not just the works of Midcult and High Culture, is now fair game. To take an interest in pop culture today (and to be a denizen of the Internet) is to be continually in a vortex of critical response, critical evaluation, critical thinking-through. Consequently, to form an opinion of any mass cultural product is to take a stand either in accordance with or in opposition to the critical wave. This is a daunting prospect. Which is why your best option when asked of your opinion of some new movie or album is to eschew an opinion entirely and just confidently respond, “Well, I read this thing on Slate the other day…” — Many studies of taste, historically, have mapped systems of cultural preference seamlessly onto class distinctions. This is certainly MacDonald’s method, with Masscult, Midcult, and High Culture all designating both calibers of cultural production and the classes most likely to consume them. This is also how Clement Greenberg approached the subject in his famous early essay on popular taste, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in which he provocatively argued why a Russian peasant is practically guaranteed to prefer a kitschy historical painting by Repin to any abstraction by Picasso. The premier scholar of taste, however, was the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In Distinction, his landmark study of the aesthetic preferences of the 1960s French bourgeoisie, Bourdieu argued that taste is less an organic expression of innate preference than a tool for the rich to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. The story goes like this: First, the privileged alone are able to get the schooling necessary to develop an aesthetic outlook that is ‘refined’ in the conventional sense. Second, the privileged then use the ‘distinction’ they’ve managed to cultivate in order to elevate themselves socially, marking themselves off, irrefutably, from everyone else. Taste, far from
innocent, becomes a security fence around the poor that the wealthy patrol with a baton. This lineage of sociological thought is extremely important to any contemporary understanding of taste. And yet it also seems entirely insufficient for understanding how taste works in America today. 2010s America is, naturally, substantially different than 1960s France. The taste war Millennials are currently waging seems to have to do with class only insofar as it is a middle-class phenomenon—an intra-, rather than inter-class conflict. Already in 1992, the historian and essayist Paul Fussell had observed that American taste anxiety was a problem unique to the middle-class, one that didn’t have much to do with the Bourdieusian class wars. In his book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, Fussell offered this delightfully devastating critique: It’s among the middle class that tastes in reading get really interesting, because it’s only here that pretense, fraud, and misrepresentation enter. The uppers don’t care what you think about their reading, and neither do the proles. The poor anxious middle class is the one that wants you to believe it reads “the best literature,” and condemnatory expressions like trash or rubbish are often on its lips.2 For many of Fussell’s readers, I imagine, reading passages like this must have been like a waking version of the naked-in-front-of-the-whole-class nightmare. Even if you can’t relate to this desire to broadcast your taste and condemn that of others (and really? you can’t?) you certainly know people who fit this caricature.
anything, synonymous with bad taste. When we try picturing the lifestyles and proclivities of the rich today, we picture not tastefully decorated lofts, but McMansions. We imagine not Bourdieu’s aloof art collectors, but Wall Street’s depraved financiers. Particularly since the financial crisis, wealth as a social category has acquired a thick patina of slime. We perceive big money as blood money, or at the very least dirty money. The rise of taste anxiety in the middle-class may be, rather than an attempt to heighten class status, a rejection of class itself—the aestheticization of a kind of classlessness. Books are cheap. Music is free, if you know how to access it. Same for film and TV. (The exorbitant price of the computer needed to download these things, of course, is a nonissue. It’s assumed that everyone already owns one, somehow.) Especially under the economic circumstances, money can’t be a value: it’s hard to get any, and if we have it, it’s likely due to our parents, loans, or the luck of landing a great job, none of which we can be particularly proud of. But we can be proud of our tastes. We don’t need to use taste as a tool to exacerbate class divides anymore, because policymakers have been doing an excellent job of that for the last forty years. We don’t need to mark ourselves apart from our poorer neighbors, because they had to move away to a cheaper part of town years ago. Taste is now a means to internal differentiation, the only means left among the Millennial masses. The middle-class is now its own island, with great wealth a distant speck and deep poverty not even visible. We can now only compete with one another. And taste, it seems, is the chosen playing field. —
But does the fact that taste anxiety seems restricted to the middle class mean that it isn’t about class? Might it not be about middle-class people trying to escape their class, raise themselves up, take on the airs of sophistication once only available to the very wealthy? The problem with that hypothesis is that wealth and good taste, once inextricable from one another in the popular imagination, appear in the last half-century to have gone their separate ways. Wealth is now, if
My intent with this essay was to explain taste anxiety, but also to criticize it. Taste anxiety is understandable, but it is also frustrating, ugly, self-defeating, unnecessary. If we can understand it better, maybe we can alleviate it. At least, that’s my hope. What it comes down to, in my view, is guts. When you express an opinion today, you are out at sea, terrified of drowning, and the opinions of revered cultural
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authorities are a life jacket. What I want to say is that we are all perfectly good swimmers already. The risks of honest, self-driven expression feel high to us. In an economic system in which we feel completely unvalued, the only value we can accrue to ourselves is the value of self-fashioning. Our society doesn’t like us, but maybe we can get our peers to like us. But having the guts to think for oneself; to buck established opinion; to download the album Pitchfork gave a shitty score to; to praise the movie everyone else hates—that is guts worthy of admiration, and much more admiration than “good taste,” so readily available from other sources, deserves. Joseph Staten
Notes 1. Dwight MacDonald, “Masscult and Midcult” in Against the American Grain, Dwight MacDonald (1962; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1983), 61. 2. Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (New York: Touchstone, 1983), 143.
Taste article Anxiety
He describes himself as a sick man, a wicked man, an unattractive man. He is an unhappy man, self pitying, extremely critical of others. He sees broader society as a farce, and openly ridicules its false reasoning. He could be either Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, or the current prominent stand u p comedian Louis CK. Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella Notes From Underground follows the otherwise unnamed “Underground Man”, a deeply embittered middle aged character living in St. Petersburg. The novella is told entirely in first person, with the first half being written from “the underground”. Here, the narrator rants about selfishness, determinism, and suffering. The second half takes place above ground, following our protagonist to a dinner party and a brothel, where he painfully and awkwardly embarrasses himself. The personality of our narrator is what carries the story: this nihilistic, self-deprecating, indecisive civil servant. Louis CK has been a stand-up for roughly 30 years, but he did not rise to prominence until his 2007 special Shameless. He has since made four more hour-long comedy specials and tours to sold out shows. His television show Louie, started in 2010, is directed by,
produced by, and stars himself (and until 2012 was edited on his personal laptop). He has garnered ten Emmy nominations and two wins. Louis CK’s stand up usually concerns everyday situations, pessimism, sexuality, and self-deprecating, often scatological humor. Louie includes clips of his stand up combined with extended, surreal vignettes of his life in New York City. Stand up comedy as we know it today, as a singular comedian performing a kind ofmonologue, did not appear until the mid-1950s with comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Mort Sahl. This new breed of stand ups emerged in opposition to the clean comedians featured on TV and radio, and because their material tackled religion, politics, sex, vulgarity, social activism, and current events; they were considered “fringe.” They performed at cafes, bars, and strip joints, all marginal locations. Places like the Comedy Cellar in New York, while now undoubtedly a tourist trap, still is technically “underground.” The similarities between Notes from Underground and standup comedy are of note. Like Notes, standup is spoken in the firstperson, commonly by an unreliable narrator. The Underground Man’s biased and erratic
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nature leads us to question the validity of his account. Standups openly address this as the nature of the art, changing names or places for protection, or beginning stories with, “this didn’t actually happen, but…” The opposite can be true, and the comedian can try hard to convince us that it did in fact happen. The Underground Man and the stand up are both unreliable, compelling the audience to sharpen the blur between truth and not-quite truth. Both stand up and Notes are speaking to an audience, even though while the Underground Man keeps referring to his readers, he doesn’t actually believe they exist. The Underground Man is performing at an open mic to an empty room. Notes is a confessional, which standup comedy is at times. There are plenty of standup routines that explore humiliating moments, and like the Underground Man, “the pleasure here lay precisely in the too vivid conscious of one’s own humiliation.”1 Why else would Louis CK extrapolate, to thousands of fans, the horrors women must face when having sex with him, if not to explore the pleasure of his own humiliation? The title of his first special, Shameless, supports this pleasure. The Underground Man also writes Notes to relive and examine the events of his life, which is arguably the most common stand up topic. Events that the Underground Man relentlessly reimagined are also relentlessly retold in the standup’s acts. These memories, often inconsequential actions, are stretched out into vivid detail, from the Underground Man’s long, agonizing confrontation with the officer from the pool hall, to comedian Hannibal Buress’s entire rationale for and practice of keeping leftover pickle juice. Notes is broken up into two parts, the first being a general philosophy according to the Underground Man, the latter half as that philosophy put to practice as an account of lived experience. Louis CK’s show Louie goes between clips of his stand up, which gives a philosophical framework for the narrative, and the lived portion of the show. In the pilot, Louis does standup about how difficult dating is (best case scenario is you fall in love forever and you get to watch them die). This segment introduces the narrative, where Louis goes on an extremely cringeworthy date. Like Notes from Underground, Louie begins with his philosophy, and then delves into the uncomfortable living psychology of those ideas. Both characters feel the need to explain their moral processes before they show us the result,
the lived experience that is often erratic, contradictory, and uncomfortable. Without their preceding philosophy, we just get a slice of bitter, middle-aged life. The philosophy does not rationalize the lived experience (Louie is too surreal, Notes too erratic and obsessed), but demands that lived experience requires reflection, even if the reflection rejects reason. Both Louis CK and the Underground Man love to talk about the perils of being forty. “To live beyond forty is indecent, banal, immoral! Who lives beyond forty… I’ll tell you who does: fools and scoundrels do”2 “I’m forty now, I’m forty, I’m half dead… ”3. They both talk about their hideous bodies openly, the Underground Man paying special attention to his unintelligent face, Louis focusing more on his belly, his genitals, and his overactive sweat glands. Strangely, they both prefer daughters. The Underground Man says that because your children are in your likeness, “it is a great duty,”4 while Louis CK chastises neglectful parents: “you’re raising Hitler motherfuckers.”5 A great deal of Louis CK’s standup and show is about raising his two daughters, which he notes in his standup, he’d prefer over boys. The Underground Man only fantasizes about having a daughters in his sentimental speech to Liza the prostitute. Both Louis CK and the Underground Man are anti-heroes. Beyond their crippling deficit of self confidence, they both question rationalist morality. The Underground Man dismisses reason as determining human action in favor of selfishness, stating man, “would do something contrary on purpose, solely out of ingratitude alone; essentially to have his own way.”6 Louis CK supports this view of man’s selfishness, citing a busy 6th Ave. in New York when a car needs to merge four lanes over but it’s gridlock: “he just does it anyway… he just shoves his car through everybody’s life… and he’s like ‘what else can I do?’”7 Neither of them are exempt from this selfishness; both acknowledge their place among the selfish. In the Underground Man’s mouse metaphor, he is a stinking vile creature that lives in filth, but is aware of the filth he lives in, unlike the less conscious around him. Louis CK goes between the thoughts he’s supposed to have, and the evil thoughts that constantly plague him. The intense similarities between The Underground Man and Louis CK lead to a broader question of where standup exists in relation to modernity. Notes from
Underground is widely regarded as the beginning of modernist literature, due to its rejection of rationalism, and its restless, unsatisfied, indecisive narrator. Dissatisfaction with mid-1950s society is what prompted comedians like Lenny Bruce to take a more critical tone, and this tone has influenced countless comedians since. From attacking politics and the church to asking “what’s the deal with airline food?,” comedy is social commentary.
please the Underground Man, who finds it terribly funny. “In short, man is comically arranged, there is apparently a joke in all of this.”9
Satire existed long before modernity or stand up. From Aristophanes’ attack on pro-war politics in The Clouds in 423 BCE, to Shakespeare’s poking fun at nearly everything else, comedy has always been a medium for political and social discourse. However, comedy is typically shunned in favor of the more serious. Tragedy’s social dissection is treated more seriously, because, well, it’s serious. Comedy can always hide behind the cop-out, “I’m only joking.”
1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, trans. Richard Pevar and Larissa Vokokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1993.), 8.
What is interesting about comedy in modernity is its new weight. With industrialization’s production of leisure time, we are faced with more time to be entertained. Comedy has flourished in modernity, from our laptops to our local bars. Comedy television equals if not surpasses, at least in number of viewers, its drama counterpart. Comedy has become prolific in a way it hasn’t before. This proliferation, making comedy the dominant “tone,” demands that comedy not be discounted, but used as a legitimate forum for discussion (as tragedy used to be). Comedy candy coats tragedy, but it makes it more palpable, and more people are partaking than ever.
2. Ibid., 5. 3. Shameless, HBO Comedy, January 13th 2007. 4. Ibid. 5. Live at the Beacon Theater, Pig Newton, December 10th 2011. 6. Dostoevsky, Notes, 97. 7. Live at the Beacon Theater. 8. Dostoevsky, 31. 9. Ibid., 34.
“Gentlemen, I am joking, of course, and I myself know that I am not joking very successfully, but one cannot take everything as a joke,”8 says the Underground Man. We can no longer take jokes as just jokes. The modern joke is also a venue of unrest, a minute moment of reflection and retaliation against the modern human condition. The Underground Man is consumed by unrest, but he just can’t package it with enough humor to appear to us as a comedy. There is always unexplainable laughter in the most tragic of conditions. Dostoevsky notes the hilarity in man’s need to achieve, and his unrest in the success when he achieves it. These modern circles of dissatisfaction
Isn’t darkness just the absence of light? There’s nothing about darkness that would seem to take on any physical substance. It is simply...the unknown. It’s a cognitive and conscious sense-deprivation: you are, in effect, dis-lightened. In the dark you are easily befuddled as you slowly approach disorientation. Few things, perhaps, are more fearful than having your poles mixed up, your directions confused, your connection to your surroundings limited...and still having no idea what dwells within them. Perhaps that’s why we find the dark so frightening as children. Perhaps we still do as adults: we light the world around us constantly. I’ve never been in a place that’s as bright as Manhattan in it’s so-called “dark.” Streetlights, sign lights, storefronts, alarms, advertisements...all lit. Yet “this, also, has been one of the dark places of the earth.”1 Peeking over the horizon of Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s masterpiece novella, we are led down the twists and turns of a murky river and into the depths of an ancient jungle where the long and lightless night seems to lie in wait. In that night, we encounter the very darknesses which plague our existence. “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion
or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”2 It does seem that ‘collecting the earth’ (like stamps or coins) from others because they are different than you would be unpleasant regardless of how deeply you looked into it. The story claims that “What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to....”3 To say that there is a justification for earth-collection through only an idea is a tough sell; an idea that will redeem such conquest has to be one pretty powerful idea. It takes a bright light to ward off centuries of darkness. Marlow, the narrator of the story and a fairly average sailor-turned-riverboat-captain, longs to explore the unknown. He takes a job piloting ivory traders up and down a river. From the outset of his journey, he hears nearly mystical tales of a man named Kurtz: the only other character in the book with a proper name. The legends of Kurtz’s ivory-obtaining prowess hold up; he acquires more ivory than all the rest of the traders put together. However, he has also gone towards the wild side of life, as he interacts with the various local
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peoples. His peers decide to check up on him, after a time, and he is accused of unsound methods–possibly fairly, as various skulls are prominently displayed on posts around his hut. His detainment is inevitable. Marlow notices the strange man attempting to be rid of his captors once and for all, and in the crepuscular gloom of an unfamiliar wilderness, he tries to stop him. Marlow confronts. Kurtz protests. Marlow rejoins. Kurtz whines. Marlow attempts persuasion. The actual words which are spoken are nothing out of the ordinary...and yet, something else seems to be at work here, despite the seeming water-cooler normalcy of their brief chat. “No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as [Kurtz’] final burst of sincerity.”4 Whence this eloquence? It’s as if, in the hands of Kurtz, things that can be seen as simply words are transfigured into Words. The actual words that are spoken could have been any words–that, at times, a mastery of language can only get you so far. There is no carefully thought-out argument, no ‘reasonable’ explanation, no “sound method”5 that that could have produced the effect that was had by Kurtz’s faith. It was so strong, so profoundly moving that it seemed as if Kurtz “had kicked himself loose of the earth...kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air.”6 Armed with nothing but his own unwavering belief, he is transfigured. In the eyes of Marlow, he has become something supernatural... or, at least, no longer of this world. It is this, and this alone, that had power enough to shake Marlow’s faith in human nature. Our narrator-sailor never gives up on the idea that Kurtz was a remarkable man–and reasonably so. An ability to offhandedly shake the foundations of one’s outlook on humanity while singlehandedly controlling vast swaths of unfamiliar territory (saving time for outperforming all of your peers in their collective job) is remarkable–regardless of ‘unsound methods.’ Marlow’s reason, however, is not nearly so complex. “He had something to say. He said it.”7 This man, god-complex and all, looked over the edge, saw life as it is, and in response to this, did not run away, cower in fear, or break down into nonsensical drivel. “He...summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!’”8 In response to what he had seen over the edge of the cliffs of insanity, Kurtz was neither fearful nor brave nor at
peace. ‘The horror.’ This was his final judgement, these his dying words. It is not that his specific idea was (with absolute certainty) the end-all of being, but that his willing enthusiasm of belief makes you wonder. Could he be right? His faith was strong, strong enough to shake Marlow’s convictions through sheer willpower. “I remember I confounded the beat of the drum with the beating of my heart, and was pleased at its calm regularity.”9 Marlow becomes a part of a primordial world of which he knows nothing, he finds himself responding to things he’d never felt before, and while his faith in human nature is shaken, his faith in Kurtz is not. He appreciates the truth in what Kurtz has seen, even if it is but a glimpse. It is not truth alone that is to be avoided, though he sees its clear potential dangers: Marlow recognises that the soul of Kurtz “was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.”10 This man, deranged or not, was simply acting on the convictions of his very soul! Here was honesty, here was sincerity, here was a man who seemed believable… and yet his soul had seen something that drove it mad. Even so, Marlow far more potently feels disgust at the behavior of the other company men. These other ivory traders may have been more likely to be considered his compatriots, not being a part of some world upriver that he did not understand, but their continued deceptions and pettiness–and unnecessary glee in cruelty–provoked him more to revulsion than even skulls on posts could do. “It was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.”11 Kurtz had seen truth, in some sense–responded to it, certainly, with vastness of mind and greatness of enterprise–but in trying to transcend himself, he seemed to be left with no ground on which to stand. Yet! the presence of that mad soul is what drives you to step back and consider: Is ground even necessary? Well, is it? Kurtz is put on a boat going back to the world from whence he came. It is on this trip that he pronounces his final judgement upon the world, and Marlow, left haunted by his memory, returns home to England. Marlow ends up returning some possessions of the deceased Kurtz to his ‘Intended’. They talk, briefly, about the sort of man Kurtz was. The question is put
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to Marlow: what were Kurtz’s last words? Marlow knows perfectly well what these words are. These are the words that daily haunt him, that cause his memory of an eventful trip to another continent to be crystallized into the memories of one man. ‘The horror.’ However, upon hearing the question, Marlow comes to the conclusion that he simply cannot tell her what these words actually were, and instead tells her that Kurtz’s last words were her name.
description of his boyhood map points to these dangers as well, “[that place] was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names…It had become a place of darkness.”13 The reason this place on the map has become dark is not corruption, not mistreatment, not imperial conquest… but the erasure of yet another mystery. Reason and Truth may leave us with more mental scar tissue than we have the capability to deal with.
Why does Marlow lie to Kurtz’s ‘Intended’? Marlow says that she “had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.”13 She had a mature capacity for belief. In a world where belief can ‘kick the earth to pieces,’ the virtue of utmost importance is faith. Fidelity. And suffering? Isn’t that the ultimate test of faith? You can say that you believe in whatever you like, but the only way to know if that belief is true is to see what happens when push comes to shove. It is only a pure faith which does not waver when pain and suffering are inevitable, and there are no other alternatives but to recant. “With every word spoken the room was growing darker, and only her forehead, smooth and white, remained illumined by the inextinguishable light of belief and love.”14 To see such a thing of light suddenly put out at your behest…the horror! His only recourse is to lie, to bow his “head before the faith that was in her, before that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness from which I could not have defended her—from which I could not even defend myself.”15 Marlow could not have defended her from this heart of darkness, but she had an idea. An idea which she wholeheartedly, unselfishly believed to be true.
In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, there is mention of a Pushkin poem (The Poor Knight) in a pivotal scene. It speaks of “a man who having once set an ideal before him has faith in it, and having faith in it gives up his life blindly to it.”10 As quoted in the novel, the poem never explicitly says what the idea is, merely that it’s there, that it exists. Blindly-held illusions have held on through the treachery of many a stormy night when every reasonable and logical inclination has long since given up hope. While a poem quoted in a novel is surely not court-admissible evidence of the power of such strong belief, The Idiot is one of the most quietly profound examples in literature of the sort of light which can be given off by faith–misplaced or not–and it is in that realm of radiance that a torch is found to light some of the darker shadows cast by Conrad’s narrative. Specifically, shadows cast by the constant search for a ‘reason why,’ the idea is that all truths have reasons, and that all reasons are discoverable. This–the principle of sufficient reason (as that idea is called)–is a very ‘enlightenment’ idea. In a nearly militant version of ‘the truth will set you free’, the enlightenment (in some hands) would have us search unendingly for reason after reason. Even if this mission is potentially successful, that idea (especially if set on an irreproachable pedestal) may not bring the light that it hopes for. Rather than a glimpse of Truth which brings about the eternal embetterment of mankind...it can drive you mad. As we saw in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, there are some mysteries that aren’t meant to be seen, and dissecting them may not be so ‘enlightening’ after all. It’s ‘too dark, by far.’ Marlow’s
Somehow, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that the idea in which she believed was false. She was still saved from that darkness, through devotion and faith, and even Marlow, though he says he cannot save himself, is able to deal with his experiences through “the faith in [his] ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in—[his] power of devotion, not to [himself], but to an obscure, back-breaking business.”16 A devotion, here, not to himself or to another man...but, again, to an idea. That is enough to keep a lamp burning at your feet, and to keep the baying hounds of too-much-Reason at bay.
Pieces of the Earth
“Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.”17
13. Conrad, Heart of Darkness. 14-16. Ibid. 17. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (Project Gutenberg, July 2003),http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4280/4280-h/4280-h.htm.
It is not that we should ignore the quest itself. The desire to know thyself is normal. The need to be aware of your surroundings, to orient yourself to your place and function in the world is natural. The pull to reason (come let us reason together) is a function and part of our very humanity...yet it can also be our destruction. We are drawn to blank spaces–both in maps and in minds–like moths to candles. Our curiosity cannot, at times, help but try to unravel every new and sublime tapestry, examining each and every thread for what it is...only to discover that, however magical it may once have seemed, when unraveled it doesn’t amount to much of anything. A pile of thread does not a tapestry make. While reason is certainly a tool with which we discover, it is a tool only–not something left to be unquestioned. It is something that can and will march forward as long as you allow it, but something that, when left to itself, will lead you astray. This may sound quite dismaying: if we are left with the idea that our tools-of-the-trade, as the sort of rag-picking reasoners who try to find the rarities among the rubbish, are not as reliable as we would like to believe, what are we left with? A leap of faith. Isaac Betters
Notes 1. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (Project Gutenberg, January, 9 2006), http:// www. gutenberg.org /cache/epub/526/pg526.html. 2-11. Ibid. 12. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot, trans. Eva Martin (Project Gutenberg, May 2001), http://www.gutenberg.org /files/2638/2638-h/2638-h.htm.
Pieces of the Earth
7pm Sunday, and theater one at Williamsburg Cinemas is crowded and convivial. Friends are recognized and hailed, popcorn thrown. Here are the beautiful children of Brooklyn, come to see their future… Spike Jonze… did you see that ad he did with the Ikea lamp? No? Oh you gotta check it out man, I’ll send it to you later… Yeah, apparently Arcade Fire did the music. I dunno, I guess that last album was a bit...yeah… yo shhh, it’s starting… Judging from the hearty laughs (during) and ragged applause (after), Her does not disappoint its demographic. Why would it? The future, it turns out, is every bit as dapper and emotionally complex as the audience of fine souls gathered to watch it. Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly is a creative professional with a moustache: every inch the millennial man. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find him sitting behind me. Beyond the cinema, the internet is equally predictably enamored; the New Yorker alone has four reviews.1 Granted, none offer unreserved praise (and Richard Brody is enjoyably crotchety, if wrong, in reading the
film as an anti-technology polemic), but in general, critics have lauded the film, and in terms that go beyond merely celebrating it as a compelling story artfully told. There has been much digital ink spilt on the Turing test, Descartes’ Meditations, HAL, our “digital overlords.” Anthony Lane described it as “the right film at the right time.” Pitchfork’s nascent film website The Dissolve named it their Film of the Year. In short, Her has resonated. I enjoyed the film, as I have most of Jonze’s work.2 Yet despite all of this attention, the conversation around Her has been strangely incomplete, in at least two important respects. First of all, the concept is fundamentally farcical. From the moment Scarlett Johansson opens her mouth and perkily christens herself Samantha, it is clear this is not a computer program we’re listening to.3 Her is science fiction in the mold of Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, which is to say: whimsical. It’s a neat gimmick, an entertaining thought-experiment, sure – but it’s quite clearly not the extended advertisement for the iPhone 12 everyone seems to be taking it for. The suspension of disbelief required to accept the premise steers the film well clear of scientific realism. At best, the film’s capacity to comment upon our relationship
et al.— article issue I
et al.â€” issue I
with technology3 is allegorical. In a sense, what is most interesting about technology in the film is how little it matters, not how much. Her is a love story, and a heartfelt and perceptive one at that. (Near the end of the film, in a moment of high distress, Twombly moans “I just don’t “know”, directly to the camera. Ah yes, I remember thinking. There it is. The voice – nay, the expression – of my generation. What are we doing? Why are we all so lonely and confused and uncertain – why can’t we just be happy? And what does it mean when the place we feel safest is with our screens?) But a love story is all it is, and we should keep our gaze firmly on its characters, rather than the world that Jonze has built for them. Let me say why, and hopefully correct the second, more problematic gap in the conversation the film has spawned. There are two major phenomena that will define the millennial generation, two things that will make our lives totally different from those of our parents. One of these is aggressively present in nearly everything we do – it is the screen I am writing this on, the screen you are reading it on, the tweet or post that you found it through. Technology is transforming us, and anyone who has seen a toddler with an iPad can attest to how unsettling and fascinating that transformation is to watch. There is no turning back from the web, thus no avoiding the generation of data, thus no avoiding someone having access to that data. The more our lives move online, managed and facilitated by ever more powerful data-processing, the more our society will be shaped in that space. Yet for all the changes it will bring, technology is not the biggest issue we are going to face in our lives. It isn’t even close.
well-to-do Twombly travelling everywhere by train. But in reducing it to a minor footnote in his film, Jonze is even less realisticin his treatment of climate change than he is with the technology. (If we wanted to push this further, we could start throwing around words like ‘escapism,’ and contend that what ultimately makes Her so appealing is that it is a deep, calming exhalation of breath, bearing the uncomplicated message that however weird the future gets, we will still be human, and the major problems we will confront will be heartbreak, loneliness, and confusion. We could call such a vision of the future a Photoshop job worthy of Vogue. We could even consider the possibility that Twombly’s ennui and emptiness might attributable as much to a society that asks him to commit his energy to nothing greater than his own happiness, as it is to his failure to find The Woman That Will Make it All Okay. But then we would remember that this is When Harry Met Siri we are talking about, and get off our damn high horse.) — Among the handful of asides to the reader peppered through Stendhal’s classic bildungsroman The Red and The Black, there is an imagined conversation between the author and his editor, in the midst of a scene of high political intrigue: the novel’s protagonist, Julien Sorel, is present at a meeting of ultra-conservative conspirators. Ostensibly loath to have to recount the content of the political discussion, Stendhal inserts the following parenthesis: (Here the author wanted to insert a page of dots.
There’s something fundamentally cringe-inducing about bringing up climate change, especially in discussing a movie as hip as Her. It’s a buzzkill if ever there was one, and musing on the frailty of human relationships is certainly more popcorn-friendly. But if those discussing Her are going to insist on considering context, then we’re going to have to consider the whole damn tamale. And in a film set in the future, that inevitably includes our generation’s great disembodied atmos-catastrophe. Granted, Jonze does tip his hat in the climate direction; in one scene, Twombly inspects a giant commercial jetliner that has been stuck nose first into the middle of a park, and there is a strong implication that air travel is obsolete, with even the
“That would be in bad taste,” said the editor, “and in a piece of writing as frivolous as this, bad taste is death.” “Politics,” replied the author, “are a millstone around the neck of literature and will sink it in less than a month. Politics in the midst of imaginary concerns is like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert. The noise is ear-splitting without being energetic. It does not harmonize with the sound of any instrument. The politics here will mortally offend one half of the readers and bore the other, who will have found them far more convincing and energetic in the morning paper.”
The Trouble with Her
“If your characters don’t talk politics,” the editor rejoined, “they are not Frenchmen of 1830, and your book is not the mirror you claim it to be…”)4 As the victory of the editor makes clear (no page of dots appears), politics - the machinations of the wider world - were the inescapable context of a story set in France in the 1830s, even in a tale such as The Red and The Black, concerned primarily and exhaustively with human relationships and personalities. The same is obviously not true in 2014. Her floats free of any constraint imposed by reality, as is its prerogative – the prerogative, indeed, of most mainstream culture, and of the society that consumes it. We are transfixed by the future, an unsurprising preoccupation for a generation with no other frontier left. But we are not interested in actually thinking about it.
3. And then, of course, that is not just a voice you are listening to, is it? If Jonze really wanted just a voice, he would have stuck with his original choice, the relatively unknown Samantha Morton. But no – you know damn well what Scarlett Johansson looks like, and the curve of her lips (and the rest) float ever-present through the film. Her performance is excellent, no doubt, but let’s not pretend Samantha was faceless. 4. Stendhal, The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century, trans. Lloyd C. Parks, (New York: Signet Classic, 1970), 378.
For those of us fortunate enough to be anticipating another fifty years of laughter and heartbreak before we die, the possibility of politics remaining avoidable over that time period seems remote. The world will intrude, whether we like it or not, and one of the great aesthetic challenges of our generation will doubtless be to return the human subject to its context; to re-inscribe it in the world. Perhaps a smart young filmmaker will create a nuanced, compassionate and sharply comic rendering of what that world might be like. But Her is not that film, and to regard it as anything other than fantastical—in its treatment of technology or of the future—is a mistake. It may be a film of our time. But I’m not sure that’s quite the endorsement it used to be. Michael Dobson
Notes 1.One, two, three, four! 2. Including (since this can be a point of contention) Where the Wild Things Are, although only after a second viewing. The first was compromised by probably the biggest bait-and-switch in film history. The trailer for WTWTA – considered as a standalone work – is one the best ever made. “Wake Up” fits Sendak’s book like a glove, trumpeting adventure, fearlessness and joy. The film Jonze actually made, of course, was infinitely more honest about what it’s like being a kid, sadder and more difficult, and with a decidedly more downbeat Karen O soundtrack. It’s still a great film – a film about childhood, rather than a kids’ movie, as Jonze himself put it – but it’s quite emphatically not what was advertised.
Theet Trouble al.— issue with IHer
James Miller Rachel Rosenfelt The New Inquiry Steve Wasserman VICE Christopher Haney Matt Mossman Elsa Westreicher Michael Olivares Mitchyll Mora Jessica Min Sara Louise Wilkins Kristiansen Ida LĂ¸demel Tvedt Michael Seidenberg Maria Putri
et al.â€” issue I
Published on Feb 17, 2014