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In both Her and Ruby Sparks (which I discussed last year), a man suddenly discovers that there’s a woman living in his house, whom he hadn’t—to his knowledge—invited in. In both of these films, the woman eventually leaves. In both, there’s an extreme power mismatch. In Ruby Sparks, the power differential is much worse than in Her: Calvin, the writer-protagonist of the film, conjures Ruby out of thin air, simply by writing about her, and throughout the entire film, he is able to dictate her actions and her personality, simply by writing what he wants on his typewriter. She can only helplessly attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance his changes produce, and make up stuff to fill in the blanks. Eventually, Calvin’s misuse of Ruby descends to serious abuse. When I was thinking about how these two films are similar, I was struck by how much they, on the contrary, differ from Truly, Madly, Deeply or Don De Lillo’s The Body Artist. In both those stories, a person appears unexpectedly, and uninvited, and refuses to leave. In those stories, the house belongs to the woman, and it’s a man who suddenly appears. In both, he asks something of her, which she’s not prepared to give, but refuses to go away. But in both those stories, the man turns out to be the ghost of her husband. She had thought that when he died, she would be alone. She turns out to have been mistaken. He is going to hang around... Continue reading
Posted 6 days ago at Bianca Steele
I saw Being John Malkovich when it was originally released, more than fifteen years ago (in the now-defunct Harvard Square Cinema, in the days when we used to drive to the city for dinner and a movie), and as I remember it, I really enjoyed it. Over time, I became less and less able to watch it. Partly, I spent too much time discussing it with other people; it was one of those strange occasions when discussing a book or a movie with others makes it seem less, rather than more, appealing. It’s possible to see Her as a rewriting of themes from Being John Malkovich, in more conventional narrative terms. And it’s really pretty good. I think. If I don’t think about it too much. One thing: The software thing doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense taken literally. An operating system just doesn’t do the same things OS1/Samantha is supposed to do. What the software is, is an adaptive interface, like the paperclip guy Microsoft tried to get people to use a few years back. It’s true that Apple, in particular, has always promoted a kind of fuzzy view of things, where the Finder tends to stand in for, or to be more interesting and important than, the MacOS proper. And it’s true that for the past several years, the user interface has been very closely associated with the OS itself: see the way Microsoft changed the look-and-feel very drastically with Vista, and with Windows 7, and then... Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Eric Rauchway at Crooked Timber has a post about Jill Lepore’s takedown of the idea of disruption, popularized by Clayton Christenson. I’d clicked through to the article, from different places, a handful of times, without ever finishing it, but it’s worth reading. This article, recommended by Phil Edwards, is interesting, especially if you follow its embedded links, but has a different emphasis. As Rauchway notes, Lepore presents two arguments: one, that “disruption” has become a buzzword that’s being applied in too many places where it’s actually irrelevant, and another, that the concept of disruption is flawed on its own terms. Lepore’s essay is good, but I’m not convinced by her attempt to refute Christenson’s work. Her argument depends on finding logical flaws and flaws in interpreting sources, without attempting to really grapple with the argument itself. She takes Christenson’s writing on its own, without taking account of what it’s actually trying to do and the other work it’s responding to. Business research can be frustrating and follows its own rules for sourcing—I’ve seen scholarly books that, where you might expect to find a primary source, you find a series of hyped-up articles from business weeklies instead—but before criticizing that research, it seems like it would be worthwhile to try to understand what it’s trying to do. A big part of Lepore’s argument is that Christenson repeatedly identifies firms as having failed, when Lepore’s research shows easily that they had not. I think there’s a disagreement on definitions here, and that... Continue reading
Posted Jun 26, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Greenberg, which appeared in 2010, directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, was both like and unlike what I expected from reading the reviews, and I both liked and was unsure about it, though less unsure than I was about Baumbach’s previous The Squid and the Whale. The uncertainty isn’t necessarily a mark against it, either. I’ve found that I’m harder on movies than I am on books, largely, I think, because I care about books more, and take them more seriously. I enjoy watching films, and when they’re good I can enjoy them as art, but I don’t expect them to be good enough to count, at least for me, as “art” in some complimentary sense. So, somehow, when they approach that complimentary sense of “art,” I feel compelled to look for the reasons why the effect is really a fake, and why the movie is just a bit of fluff after all. Whereas with novels, for the most part, I expect more from them and I work harder to fit the flaws into some larger scheme of sense-making. That’s just a fact about me, and which form—movie or book—I feel most affinity for. It isn’t a fact about whether books are better than movies, or vice versa, whether eternally or at this moment in time. But so Greenberg, I found both enjoyable and thought-provoking—though not really in an intense way that would make me think it was a masterpiece—though, again, when I think... Continue reading
Posted Jun 22, 2014 at Bianca Steele
A while back, I wrote a couple of posts about the movie version of Revolutionary Road, based on the trailer—which looked awful—and articles about the book. I final saw the movie a few years ago, and thought it was okay, a little theatrical. I started to write a post about it a couple of times, but never got very far, and I seem by now to have lost my notes. But I’ve finally read the novel, now, and it is, at one and the same time, much better than the movie, and no better than you’d expect. The film had a clockwork-strict act structure and a strong tinge of theatricality, as if the performances had been intended for the stage. The critique of America that it makes, like the language in which it makes it, also gives off a whiff of the Off-Broadway theater. Kate Winslet is physically all wrong for the part of April Wheeler, who should be all angles and narrowness, a blonde Katherine—not Audrey—Hepburn. I cannot forgive the scene in which she’s lit to resemble Hillary Clinton, as if that somehow would give the story a larger, and true, relevance. Michael Stuhlbarg Shannon is also miscast as the tall, blond schizophrenic math professor, John Givings. Leonardo Di Caprio, as Frank Wheeler, is physically fine, and demonstrates a sense of who he’s going to be as an adult actor, but there’s still a menacing sense of emotional immaturity in a grown man’s body, that he is literally the... Continue reading
Posted Jun 17, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Hi Lee, thanks for the comment. I wanted to look at the book again before replying, but I didn't really get a chance to. It's too bad you don't remember the debate/encounter (are you sure it was after 1977 and involved Maslow, he died in 1970) because if you did you could write something about it. One thing Grogan's book doesn't have is gripping narrative. As for Rogers, I think she generally implies that by the 1975 APH conference he'd about had it with humanistic psychology. He was one of those resisting its "growing anti-intellectualism." And she does discuss his differences with Maslow's approach early on--I got the sense she had more sympathy for Rogers--but doesn't say a lot about either of their thought in detail. I actually knew almost nothing about Rogers before I read the book except that someone (Ted Nelson, I think) compared the computer program Eliza to a nondirective Rogerian therapist.
Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Modern Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self, developed from a doctoral dissertation by Jessica Grogan, is an academic history of Abraham Maslow, and of the development in psychology he pioneered, known as humanistic psychology. Many people are aware of Maslow through the popularization of his “hierarchy of needs,” which describes human needs as a progression: once physical needs are met and no longer represent a challenge to the individual, then emotional and social, and eventually artistic and spiritual needs can be addressed. Maslow was concerned to move the study of psychology past a preoccupation with the lower levels, which he saw as contributing to an overemphasis on social integration and conformity, and toward a study of how to bring out the absolute best in people. But in addition to Maslow, other fairly famous figures, including Carl Rogers and Rollo May, were integral to the movement and helped to shape it. The book begins with a one-chapter history of American psychology in the middle of the twentieth century. This draws on longer works but offers an interesting interpretation—tied to the limitations of both neo-Freudianism and what she describes as a scientistic over-emphasis on quantification, with the emphasis of both on the pathological individual psychology; and on the limitations of 1950s ideology with its emphasis on conformity. Abraham Maslow wanted to introduce ideas about personal liberation into that mix. After the history of psychology overview, the book settles into narrative mode. As a narrative, it’s not... Continue reading
Posted May 26, 2014 at Bianca Steele
If the previous chapters were sometimes essayistic, the last chapter, a summing-up of Ehrenreich’s argument, really is an essay. A book that was structured along the same lines as this one chapter could have been really interesting. But while the earlier, factual chapters had a nice, flowing essayistic tone (which worked especially well in the audiobook format), this one feels choppy and superficial, and skates much too quickly from one topic to the next one. There’s more here about what Ehrenreich thinks it means to be reasonable: to know science and use the scientific method; to understand that all animals survive through vigilance and being alert to danger; to check our conclusions and beliefs with others; to be alert to the fact that the world doesn’t care about us or our feelings; to stop thinking “positive” is a synonym for “good.” People in Stalinist countries could be imprisoned for failing to be positive enough. Though people who are depressed don’t know how to distinguish the truth about the world from how they feel about things, that is, they don’t understand that emotion isn’t true, the same holds for people who are always positive. Also, we should not keep examining our thoughts and readjusting them whenever we find they make us feel negative about something in the world. This sounds good but doesn’t survive a moment’s further thought. The audiobook format makes it impossible to check Ehrenreich’s own sources, but it’s plain that she’s selected a tremendous number of books and... Continue reading
Posted May 18, 2014 at Bianca Steele
The title of the chapter is, “How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy," but this chapter isn’t really about the causes of the financial crisis. Only a few aspects of the crisis are mentioned: primarily, people taking out mortgages they ultimately couldn’t afford, and brokers putting “buy” recommendations on bad securities. (Previous installments were here: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3, ch. 4, ch. 5, ch. 6.) The chapter begins with a lengthy description of the economic situation before the crash, with what’s more recently become known as the discussion of increasing inequality. Some of this repeats information mentioned earlier in the book. This time, however, the focus is on the worsening situation for the bottom 80% of earners, rather than on the difficult times salesmen are facing. Thus, the discussion of worsening inequality feeds into the paradox that, while working and middle class people were actually doing less well, they were simultaneously turning to positive-thinking nostrums that told them they could have anything they wanted. Ehrenreich tells that people who knew perfectly well that they did not truly qualify for a mortgage could be encouraged by a pastor to consider the possibility of a miracle—that they might get a loan in spite of a poor credit score. She quotes from a few theologians who blame this kind of thing (lots of people buying houses and other luxury goods that they actually couldn’t afford) on Pentecostal preachers like Joel Osteen, or on The Secret. Another lengthy story tells of brokers who... Continue reading
Posted May 5, 2014 at Bianca Steele
I kind of liked this movie, which is an adaptation of a comic book that sets the traditional Sherlock Holmes story in a science fiction, steampunk milieu. I like science fiction but I don’t really like comics much, and this (directed by Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey, Jr., as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson) definitely is different. The first of Ritchie’s Holmes movies was admittedly pretty dumb, with Holmes wrestling or boxing in the mud and turning out to have the strength of a superhero, and a derivative plot, about secret societies and cults, that was already tired when it was new. But the end, with a fight scene on the girders and cranes of an unfinished skyscraper, was very cool. The sequel has even more of this kind of thing. The movie, really, is about buildings . . . buildings and landscapes. It uses a kind of light that’s not ordinarily seen on film. Ritchie shoots the battle scenes, especially, almost as a sequence of still frames, with comic book effects substituting for ultra-graphic realism. I stopped reading comics, in part, because after reading a few of each series, all I wanted to find out was more of the backstory. I felt like the comics would lure readers in with the promise of getting a glimpse of the world that was behind the basic storyline, and only occasionally pay off. In A Game of Shadows, the backstory or worldbuilding isn’t as totally present as it might be in... Continue reading
Posted May 3, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Chapter 6 of Ehrenreich’s book covers the movement in academic and clinical psychology to incorporate ideas about positive thinking and happiness into research. (Previous installments were here: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3, ch. 4, ch. 5.) I’m torn about this chapter. It doesn’t really say anything I don’t know. And of what I do know, or thought I knew, about half of what it says, is said in a way that’s almost unpersuasive enough to actually persuade me of the opposite. It’s really a perfectly fine chapter, for what it is. It has the feel of magazine journalism. It’s framed around Ehrenreich’s interviews with Martin Seligman (also the coiner of the term “learned helplessness”). Ehrenreich dramatizes her meetings with Seligman, his choosiness as to the location of their interview, his grumpiness, his difficulty explaining things so that a non-expert can understand, and so on. It’s hard to explain just why it’s disappointing. Let’s start with the new information it will plausibly provide for a great many people: The positive thought movement has a counterpart in university psychology departments. Martin Seligman is one of its most important practitioners. As president of the APA, in 1997, he made it his mission to promote research on positive thinking and happiness. There had been no interest in positive thinking or well-being in psychology before that point (this ought to be qualified, I think), and like most other people, most psychologists thought of Norman Vincent Peale when they thought of that kind of thing—traditionally,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 30, 2014 at Bianca Steele
I’ve been thinking for a while about the civil war novel The Killer Angels as science fiction. (Two earlier posts on the novel are here: on military strategy, and on differences between the novel and the film.) That may not be surprising. The Killer Angels was written by Michael Shaara, who had been writing science fiction for decades. (Shaara seems to have been exploring thoughts about his own recently diagnosed heart disease in the character of General Robert E. Lee. He died thirteen years after The Killer Angels was published.) Now that I’ve started reading Felix Gilman’s half-Wild West, half-Steampunk science fiction novel, The Half-Made World (Crooked Timber ran a discussion of it about a year ago but haven’t put up a link to the archive yet), I’m certain of it. The Half-Made World describes an imaginary version of earth in which the civilized lands—much older than any city in North America, a fantasy version of Northern Europe—lie to the north, with the uncivilized or unmade worlds in “the West” (as in Boston, where the North End lies to the southwest of East Boston, I suppose). As areas become settled, they are described increasingly not as “unmade” but as “half-made,” yet this opens them up to invasion by the new, violent forces of Line, with its locomotive-like engines and regimented bureaucratic cities, and Gun, with its uncontrollable madmen. Both Line and Gun derive their power from forces that not only seem, but are, supernatural: forces that exist only in the... Continue reading
Posted Apr 27, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Chapter 5 of Bright-Sided is about positive thinking’s influence in contemporary religion. (Previous installments were here: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3, ch. 4.) The best part of the chapter is again the part that gets into the expected Ehrenreich territory of economics. She shows how pastors who incorporate positive thinking into their churches have been pushed into thinking of those churches as corporations. They’ve been compelled to think of congregants, and potential congregants as customers. They’ve imbibed a marketing orientation that tells them to make their services, their buildings, and their music unthreatening and familiar. They’ve abandoned European standards of beauty in favor of bland business modernism, and hard pews in favor of plush stadium seating. They’ve come to think of themselves as CEOs, and as people who ought to be socializing with CEOs. Thus, they were infected by CEOs’ promotion of positive thinking. This is interesting, though again I thought it was the most interesting topics that were handled most briefly. Slightly less interesting is her discussions of how corporate positive thinking methods have infiltrated the university and the nonprofit sector, and of how some corporations—Amway, presumably, is one example—are even incorporating the positive-thought churches’ practices and turning into something cultlike, themselves. But this all comes at the end of the chapter and almost feels like an afterthought. The bulk of the chapter is about Joel Osteen and his church. As you’d expect, Ehrenreich does give a secular critique here. She doesn’t like Osteen’s self-aggrandizement. She doesn’t like... Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2014 at Bianca Steele
When I ask myself why I haven’t written any movie roundups lately, the fact that I can’t remember most of the movies I’ve seen in the past few months gives me a reason why. Things have looked up just a little. I rented Citizen Kane, which I’ve seen a couple of times already, and although it wasn’t as visually striking as I’d remembered it on the big screen, it held up pretty well. I saw Silver Linings Playbook, which I found pretty unimpressive: funny dialogue, with totally inappropriate delivery. It should have been like Russell’s earlier Flirting with Disaster but instead it was a generic Hollywood drama. I have no idea why (okay, actually, we all know why) Jennifer Lawrence was cast against Bradley Cooper instead of Julia Stiles, who’s actually the right age for the part, since there was nothing in the script at all about his dating a woman so much younger than he was. And I wouldn’t have been paying attention to the accents if I hadn’t read about how bad they were, but it’s amusing that everyone noticed Lawrence supposedly mispronounces “King of Prussia Mall” (she pronounces the “f”) but no one noticed that she calls the Schuylkill Expressway, not the “Schuylkill” or the “Expressway” or the "turnpike," but “the 76.” As if Filuffya were in California. And thinking about that suggests the question, why would a woman describing the horrifically traumatic death of her husband specifically name not only what store he was shopping at... Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2014 at Bianca Steele
This chapter is about the links between positive thinking and the motivation industry. We’re all familiar with the various inspirational posters and tchotchkes that remind us to have a good attitude, in the silliest cases smarmily so, and Ehrenreich shows how their sale is big business. This is one of the best chapters in the book. (Previous posts are here: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3.) The previous chapter had ended with the biography of Norman Vincent Peale, a Christian minister who preached positive thinking to an audience of largely salesmen. Ehrenreich explains how the lonely, unstructured life of the salesman made its practitioners doubt themselves and put them in need of the kind of emotional support Peale’s books (and more recent inspirational tapes) provide. Their need to make potential customers like them made them easy targets for ideas about the importance of building up their own self-confidence. Here, we get a very quick, breezy narrative of the history of management thought in America: the MBA based in technocratic thought and informal best practices gave way to the tyranny of the stock market and the financial services industry. Several years after the events she describes, they don’t seem to have become part of our common knowledge, and this section is useful. Then the book becomes what one might have expected from the author of Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. Ehrenreich describes, sympathetically, how the changes in the economy have suddenly made everyone’s lives as precarious as those of... Continue reading
Posted Apr 18, 2014 at Bianca Steele
A few years ago, I started blogging Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided, chapter by chapter, as I read the book (ch. 1, ch. 2). I got bogged down writing at chapter three, but prompted by her new book, Living with a Wild God—Bright-Sided is decidedly atheistic, though sympathetic to the less deistic, more pragmatic aspects of religion, in opposition to the new book, which suggests much more openness to specifically religious experience—I went back to my notes to see what I could make of them. I ended up borrowing an audiobook version of Bright-Sided to refresh my memory. One of the few notes I made, originally, about the third chapter was that it was written in a style I personally dislike: generalization mixed with what read like superficial scholarship, not really interesting enough as journalism to rise above a weak argument. Moreover, this is the point at which Ehrenreich abandons the strictly present-day, extra-theological treatment of positive thinking, and delves into the history of religion. The first part of the chapter is a short history of American religion. It’s extremely selective, running from pioneer Calvinism through New England Puritanism through transcendentalism through Mary Baker Eddy through William James, and finally to Norman Vincent Peale. The argument’s developed mainly through anecdotes that are connected by Ehrenreich’s own conclusions about their significance. There are footnotes to relevant scholarship—but these are not to recent work in history and sociology of religion. Rather, they’re to the hoary classics, familiar from the bibliography at the end of... Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Joan or Peggy? The show has weighed in, apparently, on the side of those who want to see Joan succeed and Peggy laid low. Similarly, they’ve weighed in on the side of those who complained that Walter White wasn’t humiliated enough, or that his humiliation only made him seem sympathetic. Don, for no reason, is sitting on the balcony in his bathrobe, shivering and crying, ugly and pathetic. (But no near frontal nudity as there was in the opening sequence with Roger.) I’ve often felt a little let down by the storytelling on the show. The scenes too often exist not to show you something happening, but to signal what happened between this show and the last one. No, Ken’s eye didn’t heal. No, that tap-dancing episode wasn’t a one-time thing: he hasn’t calmed down. Yes, Joan still has Avon, and has impressed Ken enough that he gives her more responsibility. Yes, Megan moved to California alone. No, Don hasn’t split with her, and hasn’t told her that he lost his job. No, Peggy isn’t getting along with the new boss. No, Don isn’t in AA, and Lou Avery isn’t his sponsor, and Freddie isn’t his sponsor either and doesn’t even seem to know that he has a drinking problem (although I don’t remember whether Don actually opened a bottle in Freddie’s presence). No, they didn’t have cell phones in the sixties, and Ken has to wait until Monday to find out what happened Friday. Yes, Stan is still pissed... Continue reading
Posted Apr 14, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers is a novel that begins with an interesting premise. Imagine you’re unwell. You have some malady, or maladies, which you can’t resolve and can’t explain the origin of. Now imagine that your illness could have been caused by someone else. In other words, there is someone out there, maybe someone you’ve never even met, attacking you, draining away your life and energy. In the taut first-chapter of this novel, Julavits persuades the reader that this could be the case. If, like me, you’ve been reading a lot of science fiction and SF-influenced fiction lately, you might expect the rest of the novel would explore the questions surrounding how this could be the case. Julavits, however, defies expectations and gives us a novel exploring the mind of a young woman, Julia Severn, who isn’t sure what’s real and what’s not, what’s past and what’s present, and as a result has trouble interacting normally with other people, especially other women. The novel moves quickly, but gets bogged down a bit towards the end. I had difficulty keeping track of what had happened. Sticking so closely to the consciousness of a single character—and one who’s not very interested in other people—makes it possible for Julavits to show us how a certain kind of woman thinks and feels, but doesn’t allow much room for letting the other characters appear as who they really are. This is exacerbated by the fact that almost all the characters (with the exception of a... Continue reading
Posted Feb 28, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Malcolm Cowley and Malcolm Bradbury. One was an English professor of literature, author of The History Man, and expert on the American novel and the modernist novel generally; the other was a chronicler of the Lost Generation and their contemporary, and one of the people who formed the present-day literary canon in which Melville and Hemingway take such large roles. Continue reading
Posted Feb 26, 2014 at Bianca Steele
The current issue of The Baffler has Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, ridiculing the cost-benefit analysis way of thinking: [T]wentieth-century anthropologists bewailed the apparent waste of energy and resources represented by these ubiquitous practices, . . . Painstaking preparation went into the design of costumes and masks, the invention of new tunes and dance steps, the production of favorite foods—all representing sunk opportunity costs, in this zero-sum view: energies that might have been more rationally expended on hunting, gathering, or horticulture. There had to be some purpose, or at least some function, for these costly and economically nonproductive rituals, and anthropologists soon hit on the notion that they were required for “social cohesion.” The whole burden of Ehrenreich’s essay is to argue that the artistic, recreational, and social activities of traditional societies are morally and humanistically necessary for human flourishing, and that scientific ways of thinking (including economics) are hurtful because they try to stamp out those traditional practices. (In the old days, the Marxist left prioritized economics and the modern, scientific worldview over “tradition” and the merely emotional, but this changed with the New Left and the developments of the 1970s and later.) Later in the essay, Ehrenreich will lament that her education in cell biology so ruthlessly eliminated teleology and “intention” (thought) from explanations of the workings of tissues and organs; she’ll also link to David Graeber’s piece in the same issue of The Baffler, in which he suggests—perhaps following Thomas Nagel, in his recent anti-evolution... Continue reading
Posted Feb 18, 2014 at Bianca Steele
I think somewhere Woody Allen has said he doesn’t know how to use the Internet, he doesn’t even know the difference between Twitter and blogging, something like that, but it seems likely he’s exaggerating. It’s pretty impossible that he hasn’t heard of them at all and hasn’t read or heard discussions of what they’re supposed to be like. So when I can’t watch either of his most recent two movies, To Rome with Love and Blue Jasmine, without thinking of bloggers and Usenet denizens and people who publicize their lives on Facebook, I find it hard to believe this is an accident. To Rome with Love features an ordinary man, played by Roberto Benigni, who’s suddenly thrust to fame by a random event. He finds himself on a talk show, telling the world what he had for breakfast, because suddenly he’s found that people are interested. Actual reporters are asking him about himself. He has done absolutely nothing to deserve such elevation. He’s in no way whatsoever different from everybody else. Then suddenly the media moves on to someone else and nobody remembers who he is. He finds it impossible not to rather desperately, and pathetically, try to grab a little bit of the limelight he still feels (as we’ve seen, for no good reason) is rightfully his. In other words, he’s just like every other blogger, everyone on the Internet who thinks people care about his or her opinions. The surrealistic plot point in which reporters suddenly want to... Continue reading
Posted Feb 9, 2014 at Bianca Steele
No one denies that Walter White, protagonist of the recently ended TV series Breaking Bad, is evil. He’s a drug dealer, he kills lots of people who get in his way, and he’s mean and manipulative toward the people unfortunate enough to be in his life. In the last weeks of the show, however, there was a media frenzy that appeared driven by the fear of not appearing to condemn him enough. An anti-ideal viewer was posited, apparently a composite of annoying online commenters and presumed weirdo stalkers, who thought Walt was a real hero, and coverage was strangely tilted toward the project of curing those people. (I won’t deny people like that exist. I’m sure media critics have met some of them. There are people who think the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto is a hero, too. I do doubt that enough people saw Walter White as a true hero that discussion of the show ought to have revolved around those who did. A few examples of the phenomenon might have merited a news story, maybe.) Those people were assured that it was wrong to admire Walter White—presumably in any way at all. We were all assured that there was a moral point to the show, and that the point was that Walt was evil and always had been. It was black and white, and there was no room for grey. Say something about any of his actions other than it was morally bad, and you were missing the... Continue reading
Posted Jan 23, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Generally, I think I decided I don’t like books that tell me the way things are as much as books that explore the world from a point of view of not understanding everything yet. That’s maybe a little paradoxical, because I’m not opposed in principle to understanding and generalizations and things like that. It might be that I don’t like being imposed on by opinions I don’t agree with. It might even be a modernist dislike of fictional didacticism. A quick rundown: Literary fiction: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. The best novel I read all year, but I’m separating out literary fiction here for the reason that I’m defining it as books that won’t be liked by those who don’t like literary fiction (and you know who you are). I’ve been putting off writing about this in more detail, in part because I hate the idea of recommending a book to someone who I can already predict is going to hate it, but if you like this sort of thing, it’s a very, very good example of this sort of thing. Genre fiction: Zero History, by William Gibson, with Ken MacLeod’s The Night Sessions as a reasonably close runner-up. Separating out genre fiction for the same reason (you know who you are—and these are both science fiction books). “Mainstream” fiction: Not really a category, but a late surprise was Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which was a terrific novel to read when I was sick for a... Continue reading
Posted Jan 15, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Twitter isn’t a messaging platform, like e-mail or SMS texting. It isn’t one-to-one: you send a message to another person, they reply. It isn’t even one-to-many: you send a message to every other member of a group. It’s a broadcast mechanism: one-to-all. When you send a tweet, your message goes in a big box with all the other tweets.[1] To make Twitter usable, messages in that enormous box can be searched. You can go to a particular person’s feed, and see everything they’ve sent out. Or you can search the text of all the tweets in the box. You can do any kind of search, but two special kinds of search have become common: searching by username, where it’s referenced in the tweet, and searching by hashtag. There are no real guidelines for how to use these. People use them however they want, and a kind of norm gradually develops, but different groups will naturally develop different norms—based, among other things, on how their friends use the service and on the kinds of platforms they’ve used in the past. Similarly, there’s really nothing like a “reply” in Twitter. Or more accurately, there’s no way to distinguish reply, reply all, forward, forward to a mailing list, or post to Facebook. Some people may assume a follow-on tweet is like a personal reply, while others may feel it’s more like a comment to a large group. There’s no way to hide your identity on Twitter. There’s no way to post information to... Continue reading
Posted Jan 13, 2014 at Bianca Steele
John Holbo calls attention to a blog post by William Kristol, asserting that we’ve learned the lessons of the first world war well enough, and probably overlearned them by now, and now we should try moving in the opposite direction, and stop being so afraid of war. Kristol is claiming that as late as 1914—despite Thomas Arnold, despite Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” despite Bloomsbury, despite every dissenting cultural production of the nineteenth century, especially its second half—all educated Englishmen who had learned Horace’s poem, “Dulce est decorum est” (“sweet it is, and fitting, to die for one’s country”) as young boys—all of them—lived and died believing that with all their hearts. None of them ever—not even once—even privately—ended up putting their own interests, their own life, ahead of militaristic nationalism, even a little. Kristol is claiming that it was only the facts of an actual war—and not even that—the argument of Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poetry—that changed their minds. Then they turned against the education that had taught them Horace’s poems. But if Kristol is right—if their education led them to be that unthinking, that impervious to evidence and common sense—then Kristol has just proved that they were right to reject their education. That’s not what he wants to argue, of course. I notice that he doesn’t himself argue that all educated Englishment “earnestly” believed everything they were taught in Latin-verse class; rather, he quotes from a version of this argument written by David Frum, currently a somewhat discredited... Continue reading
Posted Jan 5, 2014 at Bianca Steele