Quote of the Day–July 27,2008

I found this strolling along the “Freedom Trail” in Boston today, from Benjamin Franklin:

“Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”

—-Benjamin Franklin

Refreshing for me since American responses to education are so deeply anti-intellectual (even pragmatism– our only real contribution to philosophy–doubts the efficacy of learning.  Anyway,  experience too often is another name for prejudice, a form of justification that verges on narcissism, believing that if it isn’t true to my own experience it isn’t true at all.  The dream of reading, true or false, has at least sometimes included the notion that we can see beyond our own experience into the experience of others, that my own experience may be a starting point, but left in it I am left to my own limitations.

Side note:  I have to say I love Boston.  I’ve never spent more than a few hours in the city itself, once on a visit years ago after graduating from college, and then a few years ago for an afternoon with my parents.  A school on every street corner, it seems.  A place where walking is its own entertainment.

Advent of Revolution

Advent of Revolution

One question, what is the deal with Dunkin Donuts?  Did they start here?  There are more dunkin donuts than pictures of patriots, and that’s saying something.  According to boston.com “there are 1100 Dunkin’ Donuts within a 50-mile radius of Boston.  So far as I can tell it doesn’t affect the waistlines, but watch out Boston.

Quote of the Day–July 25, 2008

Picked up via Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Seneca

“The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Samuel Goldwyn

I tell students not to be fooled by the myth of inspiration. Handel may have written the Messiah in 3 weeks, and Faulkner may have written As I Lay Dying in eight, but this belies the hours and hours of blood, sweat, and practice, practice, practice that made enabled them to take advantage of inspiration when it came. And the average 18 year old wonders why I’m messing with their style.

Quote of the Day–July 24 2008

The following from Alice Walker

Perfection

Perfection

In nature nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can

be contorted, bend in weird ways, and they are still beautiful.

ALICE WALKER

This kind of thing reminds me why I liked her and actually included her in my book. However, by that time Walker was well along in her efforts to become an oracle instead of a writer. Too bad. She could have been a great writer, The Color Purple and a few other things attest. Instead she often sounds like a half-baked version of Shirley McLain. Which leaves her about quarter-baked, I guess.

Lee Siegel on Obama and the New Yorker: or, I feel smarter when people in the NYTimes have the same ideas I do

Lee Siegel has a piece in the NYTimes today that is relatively close to my own analysis of a couple of days ago as to why the New Yorker cover fails at satire.

The problem is that the cartoon accurately portrays a ridiculous real-life caricature that exists as literal fact in the minds of some people, and it portrays it in terms that are absolutely true to that caricature. An analogous instance would have been a cartoon without commentary appearing in a liberal Northern newspaper in the 1920s — a time when Southern violence against blacks was unabated — that showed a black man raping a white woman while eating a watermelon. The effect of accurately reproducing such a ridiculous image that dwelled unridiculously in the minds of some people would have been merely to broaden its vicious reach. The adherents of that image would have gone unsatirized and untouched.

In satire, absurdity achieves its rationality through moral perspective — or it remains simply incoherent or malign absurdity. The New Yorker represented the right-wing caricature of the Obamas while making the fatal error of not also caricaturing the right wing. It is as though Daumier had drawn figures besotted by stupidity and disfigured by genetic deficiencies — what might have been a corrupt 19th-century politician’s image of his victims — rather than the corrupt politicians themselves, whom he of course portrayed as swollen to ridiculous physical proportions by mendacity and greed.

But if that very same New Yorker cover had been drawn in a balloon over the head of a deranged citizen — or a ruthless political operative — it would have appeared as plausible only in the mind of that person. The image would have come across as absurd and unjust — a version of reality exaggerated to the point of madness.

By presenting a mad or contemptible partisan sentiment as a mainstream one, by accurately reproducing it and by neglecting to position the target of a slur — the Obamas — in relation to the producers of the slur, The New Yorker seems to have unwittingly reiterated the misconception it meant to lampoon.

Well, Siegel is more literate than I am since I can barely conjure anything at all to mind associated with the name Daumier. Good thing we have Wikipedia. And Google.   The internet as a collective memory machine. In any case, Siegel’s point seems not so very far from my own when I said:

We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

Come to think of it Siegel begins his piece by noting how wonderful it is that the world is obsessed with things normally reserved for literary scholars, kind of like my own notation that I’m thrilled that the world is abuzz with cultural theory.  Or not.  Is this a case of great minds–in this case my own and Siegel’s–thinking alike?  Or is it possible that Lee Siegel is a secrete devotee and admirer of Read Write Now.  And could it be a case of internet plagiarism.  And does such a thing exist. INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW!

[Side note: Thanks to Monda over at “Theres just no telling” and to Jon Vaitl at “I have an Idea “for their comments yesterday.  Monda, I actually just resubscribed to The New Yorker so I guess I haven’t given up on them yet, though I am tempted.  Jon, I don’t actually think irony is always smug.  As a literary device irony can depend upon the speaker knowing something that either his hearers or his subject do not, but it can also depend upon readers understanding a doubleness within a discourse that is not self-evident to the speaker.  For instance, Satan’s effort to tempt Jesusare ironic because he is tempting Jesus to doubt his status, and also attempting through that doubt to displace Jesus as the central focus of the world’s story.  The reader perceives the irony of this situation, however, in noting that Jesus demonstrates his heroism not by overt demonstrations of power, but through the simplicity of resistance.  Satan’s temptation becomes the occasion for Jesus demonstrating his strength through weakness, a central feature of the the gospel narratives.  Satan does not seem to perceive this, even when the reader does, or can.  Similar kinds of doubleness exist throughout Christian stories:  Joseph’s being sold into slavery as an act of evil by his brothers and an act of goodness by God;  the story of the crucifixion as an act of evil by human beings and an act of love by God.  Redemption, in this sense, is always ironic.  I’ve wondered whether irony is present in unique ways in the Western World because of the centrality of the Jewish and Christian narratives.  Rheinold Niebuhr’s notion of th irony of history might suggest so, but I’m not enough of an expert on how irony functions in non-Western cultures to say with any security.

Obama, Prissy Prince Charming; Or, why it is possible to be an Obamabot and have a sense of humour

I’m not much convinced that The New Yorker cover works as satire (more on that below), but I think the guys over at JibJab have another hit with this take on the political campaign.


More later on why I think this works and the New Yorker cover fails, but first I have to say I’m so glad that the world is abuzz with cultural theory! Ok, not so much. But the New Yorker’s ill-fated attempt at satire has the chattering classes hard at work trying to parse questions of genre, reader response, aesthetic taste and various other kinds of folderol. If it was satire, would people get it? If people didn’t get it, could it really be considered satire. Does the message of the image depend upon it’s intended audience as David Remnick

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding?  You Decide

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding? You Decide

seems to suggest it does when he asserts that it’s intended, after all for “Readers-of-the-New-Yorker,” that snooty bunch. But is the meaning of the visual text here determined by the intention of the artists and the reading capabilities of an intended-and-oh-so-sophisticated-audience? In this day an age? When ANY text has no chance of being targeted exclusively at an intended audience because it will immediately be spewed endlessly into the blogosphere. What is an intended audience in such a world?

I’m impressed by the degree to which the discourse has revolved around criticisms of readings and possible readings. Maureen Dowd–I liked her much more when she was being smug and condescending about Hillary Clinton–smirks that obama is prissy and humourless and should just realize that COME ON, everyone in New York knows its just a joke. This seems just like the kind of answer a New Yorker would give, believing as they do, and apparently Maureen does, that the world is their oyster.

Philip Kennicott has a more interesting take on this same general idea over at the Washington Post. Agreeing with Dowd that Obama may be a bit too prissy in his response to the cover, he goes further and links it to the particular aura of printed material in comparison to our video-oriented imagination. Satire lives, but only in the bawdy possibilities of the moving image.

On “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch in which Michelle Obama tossed the flag in the fireplace and Barack Obama took off the pinstripes to reveal a flowing white robe would be seen as outrageous — and funny. Print cartoonists, unfortunately, find themselves working in an oxygen-free environment that is increasingly akin to the atmosphere of academia, or PBS. Cable television makes print seem like something ancient and sacred, a rule-bound sanctum fraught with the ever-present risk of sacrilege. Print is becoming a strange land where the solitary reader might easily go astray.

“People say, well, I get it, but I’m afraid that so-and-so is not going to get it,” said a mildly exasperated Remnick.

Which is to say that even as we pride ourselves on our media sophistication, as debunkers and decoders of the visual, we fret about the power of the printed image to circulate beyond the comforting control of television’s continuous interpretation and contextualization. In the age of YouTube — where for the most part we can still laugh at each other and ourselves — we are increasingly becoming print-humor iconoclasts, terrified that someone might be worshiping images in the wrong way.

I can really only go part way with him on this. Do we really think print is sacred. Just the other day in my reflections on Hard Times I was suggesting that we are so super saturated with “print”–broadly considered–that print has lost it’s aura. I think the same applies to the image.

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

[Side note: I can see the point that everyone can be a little condescending to readers in fly-over country, still, I think this take from Tom Toles on the controversy is a lot smarter than the original and a lot better satire too. Score one for the post, and tom Toles.]

It may, of course, be that a good number of lefties have been holding Obama sacred, and The New Yorker cover doesn’t work for the same reason that jokes about Jesus mother don’t play in the Vatican.

But really, I don’t think the real issue is that all the Obamabots are humorless. I thought the JibJab video was hysterical–and not just because it’s skewers are equal opportunity. It’s because the satire reveals and revels in something that is kind of really true about Obama, who is the subject of the piece. By contrast, the real subject of the satire on the New Yorker cover is nowhere to be seen–and, to be honest, nowhere in consciousness. We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

This is not a lack of irony on the part of readers, as Remnick and others have lamented. Rather, the image is not ironic at all, playing off a doubleness contained within the image or within the readers’ experience of themselves viewing the image. Instead, it is a kind of postmodern archness which is anything but ironic. Indeed, I think it’s kind of smug.

On the other hand, the JibJab video really does reveal something that’s kind of true about Obama, as much as I love him. If stretched and distorted and made into a grotesque–which is what satire does, witness Swift–then you really feel the truth of the criticism that Obama is just a little too good to be true, and that too good to be trueness depends heavily on a lack of specificity that lets us project our fairy tales on to him. He will inevitable disappoint (witness Dowd’s grouchiness). In this sense, the video becomes not only about something that seems vaguely real about the Obama candidacy, it becomes about us as the viewers of the video (and more specifically as viewers of Obama). We see the truth about ourselves and our fantasies in ways that make us uncomfortable but also make us want to laugh.

None of this necessarily makes me happy, about the New Yorker, I mean. I used to think that The New Yorker was the repository of all that was smart and superior and intelligent in the world. But the guys over at JibJab are way smarter. Score another one for video. Where the smart people are.