Archive for December, 2017

Returning to the discomforts of my culture-critic armchair just in time of best- and worst-of lists, years in review, summaries of celebrity deaths, etc., the past year, tumultuous in many respects, was also strangely stable. Absent were major political and economic crises and calamities of which myriad harbingers and forebodings warned. Present, however, were numerous natural disasters, primary among them a series of North American hurricanes and wildfires. (They are actually part of a larger, ongoing ecocide now being accelerated by the Trump Admistration’s ideology-fueled rollback of environmental protections and regulations, but that’s a different blog post.) I don’t usually make predictions, but I do live on pins and needles with expectations things could take a decidedly bad turn at any moment. For example, continuity of government — specifically, the executive branch — was not expected to last the year by many pundits, yet it did, and we’ve settled into a new normal of exceedingly low expectations with regard to the dignity and effectiveness of high office.

I’ve been conflicted in my desire for stability — often understood pejoratively as either the status quo or business as usual — precisely because those things represent extension and intensification of the very trends that spell our collective doom. Yet I’m in no hurry to initiate the suffering and megadeath that will accompany the cascade collapse of industrial civilization, which will undoubtedly hasten my own demise. I usually express this conflict as not knowing what to hope for: a quick end to things that leaves room for survival of some part of the biosphere (not including large primates) or playing things out to their bitter end with the hope that my natural life is preserved (as opposed to an unnatural end to all of us).

The final paragraph at this blog post by PZ Myers, author of Pharyngula seen at left on my blogroll states the case for stability:

… I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb, where there was fear of a looming apocalypse everywhere. We thought that what was going to kill us was our dangerous technological brilliance — we were just too dang smart for our own good. We were wrong. It’s our ignorance that is going to destroy us, our contempt for the social sciences and humanities, our dismissal of the importance of history, sociology, and psychology in maintaining a healthy, stable society that people would want to live in. A complex society requires a framework of cooperation and interdependence to survive, and without people who care about how it works and monitor its functioning, it’s susceptible to parasites and exploiters and random wreckers. Ignorance and malice allow a Brexit to happen, or a Trump to get elected, or a Sulla to march on Rome to ‘save the Republic’.

So there’s the rub: we developed human institutions and governments ideally meant to function for the benefit and welfare of all people but which have gone haywire and/or been corrupted. It’s probably true that being too dang smart for our own good is responsible for corruptions and dangerous technological brilliance, while not being dang smart enough (meaning even smarter or more clever than we already are) causes our collective failure to achieve anything remotely approaching the utopian institutions we conceive. Hell, I’d be happy for competence these days, but even that low bar eludes us.

Instead, civilization teeters dangerously close to collapse on numerous fronts. The faux stability that characterizes 2017 will carry into early 2018, but who knows how much farther? Curiously, having just finished reading Graham Hancock’s The Magicians of the Gods (no review coming from me), he ends ends with a brief discussion of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis and the potential for additional impacts as Earth passes periodically through a region of space, a torus in geometry, littered with debris from the breakup of a large body. It’s a different death-from-above from that feared throughout the Atomic Age but even more fearsome. If we suffer anther impact (or several), it would not be self-annihilation stemming from our dim long-term view of forces we set in motion, but that hardly absolves us of anything.

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This Savage Love column got my attention. As with Dear Abby, Ask Marylin, or indeed any advice column, I surmise that questions are edited for publication. Still, a couple minor usage errors attracted my eye, which I can let go without further chastising comment. More importantly, question and answer both employ a type of Newspeak commonplace among those attuned to identity politics. Those of us not struggling with identity issues may be less conversant with this specialized language, or it could be a generational thing. Coded speech is not unusual within specialized fields of endeavor. My fascination with nomenclature and neologisms makes me pay attention, though I’m not typically an adopter of hip new coin.

The Q part of Q&A never actually asks a question but provides context to suggest or extrapolate one, namely, “please advise me on my neuro-atypicality.” (I made up that word.) While the Q acknowledges that folks on the autism spectrum are not neurotypical, the word disability is put in quotes (variously, scare quotes, air quotes, or irony quotes), meaning that it is not or should not be considered a real or true disability. Yet the woman acknowledges her own difficulty with social signaling. The A part of Q&A notes a marked sensitivity to social justice among those on the spectrum, acknowledges a correlation with nonstandard gender identity (or is it sexual orientation?), and includes a jibe that standard advice is to mimic neurotypical behaviors, which “tend to be tediously heteronormative and drearily vanilla-centric.” The terms tediously, drearily , and vanilla push unsubtly toward normalization and acceptance of kink and aberrance, as does Savage Love in general. I wrote about this general phenomenon in a post called “Trans is the New Chic.”

Whereas I have no hesitation to express disapproval of shitty people, shitty things, and shitty ideas, I am happy to accept many mere differences as not caring two shits either way. This question asks about something fundamental human behavior: sexual expression. Everyone needs an outlet, and outliers (atypicals, nonnormatives, kinksters, transgressors, etc.) undoubtedly have more trouble than normal folks. Unless living under a rock, you’ve no doubt heard and/or read theories from various quarters that character distortion often stems from sexual repression or lack of sexual access, which describes a large number of societies historical and contemporary. Some would include the 21st-century U.S. in that category, but I disagree. Sure, we have puritanical roots, recent moral panic over sexual buffoonery and crimes, and a less healthy sexual outlook than, say, European cultures, but we’re also suffused in licentiousness, Internet pornography, and everyday seductions served up in the media via advertising, R-rated cinema, and TV-MA content. It’s a decidedly mixed bag.

Armed with a lay appreciation of sociology, I can’t help but to observe that humans are a social species with hierarchies and norms, not as rigid or prescribed perhaps as with insect species, but nonetheless possessing powerful drives toward consensus, cooperation, and categorization. Throwing open the floodgates to wide acceptance of aberrant, niche behaviors strikes me as swimming decidedly upstream in a society populated by a sizable minority of conservatives mightily offended by anything falling outside the heteronormative mainstream. I’m not advocating either way but merely observing the central conflict.

All this said, the thing that has me wondering is whether autism isn’t itself an adaptation to information overload commencing roughly with the rise of mass media in the early 20th century. If one expects that the human mind is primarily an information processor and the only direction is to process ever more information faster and more accurately than in the past, well, I have some bad news: we’re getting worse at it, not better. So while autism might appear to be maladaptive, filtering out useless excess information might unintuitively prove to be adaptive, especially considering the disposition toward analytical, instrumental thinking exhibited by those on the spectrum. How much this style of mind is valued in today’s world is an open question. I also don’t have an answer to the nature/nurture aspect of the issue, which is whether the adaptation/maladaptation is more cultural or biological. I can only observe that it’s on the rise, or at least being recognized and diagnosed more frequently.

Fan Service

Posted: December 27, 2017 in Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Idle Nonsense, Media, Taste
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Having just seen the latest installment of the supermegahit Star Wars franchise, my thinking drifted ineluctably to the issue of fan service. There is probably no greater example of the public claiming ownership of popular culture than with Star Wars, which has been a uniquely American phenomenon for 40 years and risen to the level of a new mythology. Never mind that it was invented out of whole cloth. (Some argue that the major religions are also invented, but that’s a different subject of debate.) Other invented, segmented mythologies include Rowling’s Harry Potter series (books before movies), Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (books before movies), Martin’s Game of Thrones (books before TV show), and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (operas). It’s little surprise (to me, at least) that the new American mythology stems from cinema rather than literature or music.

Given the general public’s deep knowledge of the Star Wars canon, it’s inevitable that some portion of the each installment of the franchise must cite and rhyme recognizable plots, dialogue, and thematic elements, which is roughly analogous to one’s favorite band playing its hits rather than offering newly composed music at every concert. With James Bond (probably the first movie franchise, though book series written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agathe Christie long ago established the model for recurring characters), story elements were formalized rather early in its history and form the foundation of each later story. Some regard the so-called formula as a straitjacket, whereas others derive considerable enjoyment out of familiar elements. So, too, with Star Wars. The light sabers, the spaceships, the light and dark sides of the force, the plucky rebels, the storm troopers, the disfigured villains, and the reluctant hero all make their appearances and reappearances in different guises. What surprised me most about The Last Jedi is how frequently and skillfully fan service was handled, typically undercutting each bit to simultaneously satisfy and taunt viewers. Some indignant fanboys (and -girls) have actually petitioned to have The Last Jedi struck from the Star Wars canon for defying franchise conventions so flagrantly.

New media have enabled regular folks to indulge their pet theories of the Star Wars universe in public fora, and accordingly, no shortage of overexcited analysis exists regarding plots, family relationships, cat-and-mouse strategics, and of course, possible stories to be told in an ever-expanding cinematic universe promising new films with nauseating regularity for the foreseeable future, or at least so long as the intellectual property owners can wring giant profits out of the series. This is what cinematic storytelling has become: setting up a series and wringing every last bit of value out of it before leaving it fallow and untended for a decade or more and then rebooting the entire stinking mess. The familiar criticism is Hollywood Out of Ideas, which often rings true except when one considers that only a few basic narrative structures exist in the first place. All the different manifestations are merely variations upon familiar themes, another form of fan service.

I watched a documentary on Netflix called Jim & Andy (2017) that provides a glimpse behind the scenes of the making of Man on the Moon (1999) where Jim Carrey portrays Andy Kaufman. It’s a familiar story of art imitating life (or is it life imitating art?) as Carrey goes method and essentially channels Kaufman and Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton. A whole gaggle of actors played earlier incarnations of themselves in Man on the Moon and appeared as themselves (without artifice) in Jim & Andy, adding another weird dimension to the goings on. Actors losing themselves in roles and undermining their sense of self is hardly novel. Regular people lose themselves in their jobs, hobbies, media hype, glare of celebrity, etc. all the time. From an only slightly broader perspective, we’re all merely actors playing roles, shifting subtly or dramatically based on context. Shakespeare observed it centuries ago. However, the documentary points to a deeper sense of unreality precisely because Kaufman’s principal shtick was to push discomfiting jokes/performances beyond the breaking point, never dropping the act to let his audience in on the joke or provide closure. It’s a manifestation of what I call the Disorientation Protocol.

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As time wears on and I add years to this mostly ignored blog, I keep running across ideas expressed herein, sometimes long ago, recapitulated in remarks and comments elsewhere. Absolutely disparate people can develop the same ideas independently, so I’m not claiming that my ideas are stolen. Maybe I’m merely in touch with the Zeitgeist and express it here only then to see or hear it again someplace else. I can’t judge objectively.

The latest coincidence is the growing dread with which I wake up every day, wondering what fresh new hell awaits with the morning news. The times in which we live are both an extension of our received culture and yet unprecedented in their novelty. Not only are there many more people in existence than 100 years ago and thus radical opinions and events occurring with extraordinary frequency, the speed of transmission is also faster than in the past. Indeed, the rush to publication has many news organs reporting before any solid information is available. The first instance of blanket crisis coverage I remember was the Challenger Disaster in 1986. It’s unknown to me how quickly news of various U.S. political assassinations in the 1960s spread, but I suspect reporting took more time than today and imparted to those events gravity and composure. Today is more like a renewed Wild West where anything goes, which has been the preferred characterization of the Internet since its creation. We’ll see if the recent vote to remove Net Neutrality has the effect of restraining things. I suspect that particular move is more about a money grab (selling premium open access vs. basic limited access) than thought control, but I can only guess as to true motivations.

I happened to be traveling when the news broke of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. Happily, what news I got was delayed until actual news-gathering had already sorted basic fact from confabulation. Paradoxically, after the first wave of “what the hell just happened?” there formed a second wave of “here’s what happened,” and later a third wave of “what the hell really happened?” appeared as some rather creative interpretations were offered up for consideration. That third wave is by now quite familiar to everyone as the conspiracy wave, and surfing it feels inevitable because the second wave is often so starkly unbelievable. Various websites and shows such as snopes.com, metabunk.org, MythBusters, and Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (probably others, too) presume to settle debates. While I’m inclined to believe scientific and documentary evidence, mere argument often fails to convince me, which is troubling, to say the least.

Fending off all the mis- and disinformation, or separating signal from noise, is a full-time job if one is willing to undertake it. That used to be the mandate of the journalistic news media, at least in principle. Lots of failures on that account stack up throughout history. However, since we’re in the midst of a cultural phase dominated by competing claims to authority and the public’s retreat into ideation, the substitute worlds of extended and virtual reality become attractive alternatives to the fresh new hell we now face every morning. Tune in and check in might be what we think we’re doing, but more accurately, we tune out and check out of responsible engagement with the real world. That’s the domain of incessantly chipper morning TV shows. Moreover, we like to believe in the mythical stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, such as, for example, how privacy doesn’t matter, or that the U.S. is a free, democratic, liberal beacon of hope, or that economic value inheres in made-up currencies. It’s a battle for your attention and subscription in the marketplace of ideas. Caveat emptor.

Societies sometimes employ leveling mechanisms to keep the high and mighty from getting too, well, high and mighty or to pull them back down when they nonetheless manage to scale untenable heights. Some might insist that the U.S. breakaway from the British crown and aristocratic systems in the Revolutionary Era was, among other things, to establish an egalitarian society in accordance with liberal philosophy of the day. This is true to a point, since we in the U.S. don’t have hereditary aristocratic titles, but a less charitable view is that the Founders really only substituted the landed gentry, which to say themselves, for the tyrannical British. Who scored worse on the tyranny scale is a matter of debate, especially when modern sensibilities are applied to historical practices. Although I don’t generally care for such hindsight moralizing, it’s uncontroversial that the phrase “all men are created equal” (from the U.S. Declaration of Independence) did not then apply, for instance, to slaves and women. We’re still battling to establish equality (a level playing field) among all men and women. For SJWs, the fight has become about equality of outcome (e.g., quotas), which is a perversion of the more reasonable and achievable equality of opportunity.

When and where available resources were more limited, say, in agrarian or subsistence economies, the distance or separation between top and bottom was relatively modest. In a nonresource economy, where activity is financialized and decoupled from productivity (Bitcoin, anyone?), the distance between top and bottom can grow appallingly wide. I suspect that an economist could give a better explanation of this phenomenon than I can, but my suspicion is that it has primarily to do with fiat currency (money issued without sound backing such as precious metals), expansion of credit, and creation of arcane instruments of finance, all of which give rise to an immense bureaucracy of administrative personnel to create, manage, and manipulate them.

The U.S. tax structure of the 1950s — steep taxes levied against the highest earners — was a leveling mechanism. Whether intentionally corrective of the excesses of the Jazz Age is beyond my knowledge. However, that progressive tax structure has been dismantled (“leveled,” one might say), shifting from progressive to regressive and now to transgressive. Regressive is where more or disproportionate tax responsibility is borne by those already struggling to satisfy their basic needs. Transgressive is outright punishment of those who fail to earn enough, as though the whip functions as a spur to success. Indeed, as I mentioned in the previous blog post, the mood of the country right now is to abandon and blame those whom financial success has eluded. Though the term debtor’s prison belongs to a bygone era, we still have them, as people are imprisoned over nonviolent infractions such as parking tickets only to have heavy, additional, administrative fines and fees levied on them, holding them hostage to payment. That’s victimizing the victim, pure and simple.

At the other end of the scale, the superrich ascend a hierarchy that is absurdly imbalanced since leveling mechanisms are no longer present. Of course, disdain of the nouveau riche exists, primarily because social training does not typically accompany amassing of new fortunes, allowing many of that cohort to be amazingly gauche and intransigently proud of it (names withheld). That disdain is especially the prerogative of those whose wealth is inherited, not the masses, but is not an effective leveling mechanism. If one is rich, famous, and charming enough, indulgences for bad or criminal behavior are commonplace. For instance, those convicted of major financial crime in the past decade are quite few, whereas beneficiaries (multimillionaires) of looting of the U.S. Treasury are many. One very recent exception to indulgences is the wave of people being accused of sexual misconduct, but I daresay the motivation is unrelated to that of standard leveling mechanisms. Rather, it’s moral panic resulting from strains being felt throughout society having to do with sexual orientation and identity.

When the superrich ascend into the billionaire class, they tend to behave supranationally: buying private islands or yachts outside the jurisdiction or control of nation states, becoming nominal residents of the most advantageous tax havens, and shielding themselves from the rabble. While this brand of anarchism may be attractive to some and justified to others, detaching from social hierarchies and abandoning or ignoring others in need once one’s own fortunes are secure is questionable behavior to say the least. Indeed, those of such special character are typically focal points of violence and mayhem when the lives of the masses become too intolerable. That target on one’s back can be ignored or forestalled for a long time, perhaps, but the eventuality of nasty blowback is virtually guaranteed. That’s the final leveling mechanism seen throughout history.

Brief, uncharacteristic foray into national politics. The Senate narrowly approved a tax reform bill that’s been hawked by that shiny-suit-wearing-used-car-salesman-conman-guy over the past months as simply a big, fat tax cut. From all appearances, it won’t quite work out that way. The 479-pp. bill is available here (PDF link), including last-minute handwritten amendments. I don’t know how typical that is of legislative processes, but I doubt rushing or forcing a vote in the dead of night on an unfinished bill no one has had the opportunity to review leads to good results. Moreover, what does that say to schoolchildren about finishing one’s homework before turning it in?

Considering the tax reform bill is still a work in progress, it’s difficult to know with much certainty its effects if/when signed into law. However, summaries and snapshots of tax effects on typical American households have been provided to aid in the layperson’s grasp of the bill. This one from Mic Network Inc. (a multichannel news/entertainment network with which I am unfamiliar, so I won’t vouch for its reliability) states that the bill is widely unpopular and few trust the advance marketing of the bill:

Only 16% of Americans have said they think the plan is actually going to cut their taxes, less than half the number of people polled who think that their bill is going to go up, according to a Nov. 15 poll from Quinnipiac University.

Yet it seems the Republican-led effort will be successful, despite concerns that many middle class people could actually see their taxes rise, that social programs could suffer, that small businesses could be harmed and that a hoped-for economic boom may never materialize. [links removed]

When a change in tax law goes into effect, one good question is, “who gets help and who gets hurt?” For decades now, the answer has almost always been Reverse Robin Hood: take (or steal) from the poor and give to the rich. That’s why income inequality has increased to extreme levels commencing with the Reagan administration. The economic field of play has been consciously, knowingly tilted in favor of certain groups at the expense of others. Does anyone really believe that those in power are looking out for the poor and downtrodden? Sorry, that’s not the mood of the nation right now. Rather than assisting people who need help, governments at all levels have been withdrawing support and telling people, in effect, “you’re on your own, but first pay your taxes.” I propose we call the new tax bill Reverse Cowgirl, because if anything is certain about it, it’s that lots of people are gonna get fucked.