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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Details, details

An alert reader who goes by the handle “The Navigator” informed me yesterday in comments that an alert reader who goes by the name of Lee asked me way back on May 3 for the details of my Beavis and Butthead riff, and that I never replied.  Well, this less-than-alert blog apologizes.  We strive to please around here, and we don’t usually miss wide-open invitations to bloviate, either.  So here goes.

I delivered a talk on the topic of “criticism as evaluation” four or five times from 1994 to 1996, but never committed it to print, because the best parts of the talk (I thought) were the film clips—the last (and best) of which involved Beavis and Butthead making fun of the German metal band Accept.  And it’s a good thing I didn’t commit this stuff to print back then, either, because the general point at issue is made much more clearly and compellingly by Simon Frith in Performing Rites:  On the Value of Popular Music and (more recently) the series of essays by David Shumway, David Sanjek, and Barry Faulk in The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies.  Anyway, here’s the relevant bit of the talk; it starts by taking issue with Andrew Ross’s remark, at the end of No Respect:  Intellectuals and Popular Culture, that studying popular culture involves a “necessary engagement with aggressively indifferent attitudes toward the life of the mind and the protocols of knowledge,” since what Andrew pretty clearly meant was something more like ”academic or formal protocols of knowledge.”

I wish I could include the clip, though.  It’s the best part.  You’ll just have to imagine it, and sing along on your own.

Beavis and Butthead not only have well-developed protocols of knowledge; they have a somewhat ironic—or critical—relation to the language of reviewers as well.  Take for example their wonderful review of a less than wonderful video from fake-metal band Accept.  As Accept runs through the repertoire of choreographed metal swagger, the video shows wrecking balls crashing through brick buildings and a line of t-shirted young men banging their heads against a wall.  B & B’s commentary runs as follows:

Butthead:  Well, he is saying “balls,” and normally that would be pretty cool.
Beavis:  Yeh.  But under these circumstances, it sucks.
Butthead:  Yeah.  Usually demolition and destruction is pretty cool too, but I dunno, it’s like, here it’s just like, it falls flat.
Beavis:  Yeh.  Yeh.  I think even if they had some fire in this video, it would still suck.

Viewers unfamiliar with Beavis and Butthead might expect them to have an uncritical relation to metal bands, and give them all As and thumbs up unreflectively.  But such viewers should realize how accurate B & B’s judgment is here—the video really does suck, and, as any movie critic might say, even the scenes of destruction somehow “fall flat.” Equally important is a later scene from the video, which depicts a number of zombie-like creatures advancing toward the camera—presumably toward the building in which Accept is playing “Balls to the Wall.”

Butthead:  Check it out.  It’s Krokus coming to kick their ass.
Beavis:  Yeh.  Heh-heh.
Butthead:  It’s the night of the living bands that suck.

Now, Bourdieu would be entirely right to note (if he cared to do so) that our boys are, after all, evaluating music videos rather than sonatas, so it’s not as if they’re throwing around their excess cultural capital with abandon.  But even though there is a distinction here between what Bourdieu calls the “aesthetic” disposition and “ordinary” dispositions, it does not follow that “ordinary dispositions” cannot also be variously critical dispositions.  In fact, I could go further and say that Beavis and Butthead are engaging in what one traditionalist critic calls “one of criticism’s foremost responsibilities:  the making and revising of critical discriminations.” For in order to understand who’s the butt of Butthead’s bon mots here, you not only have to catch the brief visual reference to Night of the Living Dead; you also have to know your metal bands pretty well—well enough, at least, to realize how devastating an insult it is to suggest that any metal band could have its collective ass kicked by—of all people—Krokus.

All the same, evaluative systems work—in part—by being exclusive; as Bourdieu insists, they would not be readable as systems otherwise, and all evaluative systems—if they work as evaluative systems—must be somewhat reliable in their evaluations and somewhat opaque in their exclusivity.  For example, it’s crucial that after about a minute of viewing the video for Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law,” Butthead decides that “I still like Judas Priest and all, but, uh, this video sucks.” It’s a cheesy early-’80s video, poorly produced, badly acted, and sloppily lip-synched—and for that reason, it’s important to our sense of B & B as evaluators that they can admit the video is poor even as they thrash around on the couch and scream, “breaking the law, breaking the law” on the choruses.  Likewise, Beavis and Butthead must be somewhat reliable if their enthusiastic support of a video from White Zombie is really going to put White Zombie on the map (as, in fact, it did).  But at the same time, no evaluative system can work unless it maintains some degree of opacity to those not in the know.  If you got to ask, as Louis Armstrong once put it. . . .

Or, to put Satchmo’s point in slightly different terms, all systems of evaluation must be at once exclusive yet translatable, opaque and yet transparent.  The more opaque and exclusive the appeal, the more “cult” the following; conversely, the more persuasive the criteria, the more potentially influential the critic.  An evaluative system that is infinitely translatable is, at least in principle, infinitely influential; but a system that is perfectly internally coherent but unreadable to anyone save its creator is as problematic to cultural critics as the idea of a “private language” was to Wittgenstein.  Just as Jan Mukarovsky, in Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts, notes that every aesthetic norm strives for a universal validity it cannot possibly achieve (since if it achieved complete universality it would not be perceived as a “rule” at all), so too should we note that every evaluative system, like every language, must be distinct yet translatable.  The difference between my position and Mukarovsky’s, however, is that mine insists that not every aesthetic norm “strives” for universality; on the contrary, there are innumerable aesthetic norms whose value lies precisely in their unintelligibility.  Why do you listen to that awful noise?  If you gotta ask. . . .

Well, you know where that road leads, folks.  It leads to Arbitrary but Fun Value Judgments!  But that’s for tomorrow’s post.

Posted by Michael on 05/12 at 10:44 AM
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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

White House announces new Social Security plan

WASHINGTON—White House press secretary Scott McClellan said today that President Bush would soon unveil a revised plan for saving Social Security, one that ties the concept of “progressive indexing” to the Food and Drug Administration’s recent ruling that any man who has engaged in homosexual sex in the previous five years should be barred from serving as an anonymous sperm donor.

Under the new plan, an individual’s Social Security eligibility would be calibrated on a sliding scale which establishes an inverse relation between qualifying for future Social Security benefits and participating in anal sex. 

McClellan called the FDA ruling an “inspiration” for the President.  “President Bush has always believed that gay sperm are a threat to the American family,” he said in today’s press briefing.  “Now we’re prepared to show that gay men are a threat to the solvency of Social Security as well.  Without progressive indexing for gay sex, Social Security will collapse.”

Gay-rights groups immediately denounced the plan.  Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, called it “policy based on bigotry.”

The White House, however, denies that the plan is discriminatory.  “We’re not saying that gay men aren’t eligible for Social Security,” said one high-ranking official.  “It’s pegged very specifically to individual behavior.  If you have anal sex half the time, say, you still qualify for fifty percent of your Social Security benefits.  And if you want your full benefits, all you really have to do, under this plan, is say no to sodomy.”

Treasury Secretary John Snow, in a separate statement, pointed out that the Social Security system will be “bankrupt” in 2042 unless critical steps are taken now to “strengthen” the program.  “The fact is Social Security will go broke when our young workers get ready to retire,” said Snow.  “Every year we wait the problem becomes worse for our children.  The time to act is now, to make sure that today’s anal-sex-havers do not drain the system and necessitate benefit cuts for the rest of us.”

At the same time, Secretary Snow insisted that “all options are on the table,” including a provision exempting gay Republican officeholders from the plan, on the condition that they oppose gay rights.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.- Tenn.) lashed out at the Administration’s critics.  “The Democrat party is denouncing this plan even before it’s been officially announced,” he said.  “They don’t know any of the details, and they’re already playing politics with this issue.  Where is their plan?  What are liberals doing about the anal sex crisis that threatens Social Security?  All they say is ‘there is no anal sex crisis.’ That’s not a plan, and the American people know it.”

One White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Administration is still unsure of what to do about lesbians.  “We figured out that we don’t have to worry about them as sperm donors,” said the official, “but Social Security is a whole different ballgame.  We’re thinking of maybe making every other lesbian eligible, and letting them fight it out.  We think that would be hot.  But right now we just don’t know.  Everyone here has been focused exclusively on anal sex, and we don’t really have a plan for lesbians.  All we know is that it was terrible that John Kerry said that word.”

Posted by Michael on 05/10 at 12:12 PM
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Monday, May 09, 2005

A league of their own

Today’s item is about baseball and drooling.  We begin with this recent item by Jonathan Finer in the April 29 Washington Post:

BOSTON—When the technician examining an ultrasound image of her belly abruptly got up and walked out of the room during a prenatal appointment six years ago, Beth Allard told her husband she knew something was wrong.

Minutes later, an obstetrician at the Boston hospital confirmed the first-time mother’s fears, explaining that the pictures showed signs of Down syndrome.

Then, Allard recalled, the doctor began to describe what to expect.

“It could just be hanging off of you, drooling,” the physician said, contorting her face into a saggy, expressionless imitation of what a child might look like with the constellation of physical and mental symptoms that characterize the syndrome, which occurs in about one in 1,000 newborns.

“We felt hopeless and incredibly scared,” Allard, 42, said in an interview. “We didn’t know what this was or what to do. They told us we had a few weeks to decide whether to keep the baby.”

Such negative depictions of Down syndrome by health professionals who do prenatal screening are common, according to a survey of nearly 3,000 parents of children with the condition, published last month in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. A majority reported that the obstetricians who gave them the diagnosis had focused on the hardships ahead and ignored “the positive potential of people with Down syndrome.”

“In many cases the doctors were insensitive or just plain rude,” said the author, Harvard medical student Brian G. Skotko, whose 24-year-old sister has Down syndrome.

Parents and advocates of people with Down syndrome hailed Skotko’s research and hope it will lead doctors to provide more comprehensive information about what life with the condition can be like.

Of course, doctors will have to read the damn thing.  They can’t just hang around hospitals drooling and making funny faces all day.

Just over thirty years ago, Charles and Emily Perl Kingsley were told that their baby Jason “would probably never sit up, stand, walk, talk, or have any meaningful thoughts whatsoever,” as Ms. Kingsley recalled many years later.  “He would never recognize us as his parents.  He would never be able to distinguish us from any other adults who were halfway nice to him.” Her husband responded with what is now a classic line among parents of kids with Down syndrome, “Okay, maybe my son will never grow up to be a brain surgeon.  Maybe all he’ll ever be is an obstetrician.”

Jason Kingsley grew up to be, among other things, the co-author of the 1994 book Count Us In: Growing Up with Down Syndrome.

In all fairness, not every child with Down syndrome will grow up to write a book, part of which contains a belated reply to his family’s obstetrician—and all of which, of course, constitutes a reply to his family’s obstetrician.  Some children with Down syndrome might, for example, merely throw out the first pitch of the 2005 State College Little League season:

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Jamie was really looking forward to this, so we practiced his pitching all last week.  He’s got a great arm.  And here’s Jamie taking a little BP beforehand.  Yep, he throws right, bats left.  Don’t ask me—that’s his mother’s influence.

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Jamie plays “Challenger League” baseball on Fridays from 6-7 pm in May and June.  The two teams in the Challenger League play two-inning games in which every player bats once each inning.  They are assisted each week by “buddies” from other Little League teams, who help them with fielding (thanks, buddies!).  Each batter takes first base, regardless of what happens in the field, and then the last batter in the inning effectively hits a grand slam, clearing the bases.  So all the kids bat; I pitch underhand to all of them except one, a serious ballplayer who can handle overhand pitching and hit it sharply into the outfield (Jamie’s almost there, but not quite—he can smack it, usually to the opposite field, but I haven’t thrown overhand to him yet).  All the kids get on base.  All the kids score.  There are no vicious parent-umpire fights; there are no umpires.  There are no parent-coach squabbles about whose kid should be playing where.  There are no wins or losses.  Imagine, no wins and losses.  Imagine no possessions!  I wonder if you can.

Of course, some people would say that Challenger League isn’t really Little League at all—just a feelgood exercise stripped of all the forms of competition and athletic achievement that make youth sports meaningful.  These would be the people who don’t see why it’s worth the effort to include kids with disabilities in all forms of social life, from school to play.

But Challenger League rules.  Those people drool.

Posted by Michael on 05/09 at 07:13 AM
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Friday, May 06, 2005

Arbitrary but fun value judgments:  III

Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge is the creepiest movie in the world.

Now, perhaps there are films that have more creepiness in them frame by frame, like, say, Father of the Bride.  But the parameters of this Friday’s arbitrary but fun value judgment are confined to critically acclaimed films—“serious” films, if you can stand that term—and not, say, The Cell or Hollow Man.  And what do I mean by “creepy”?  Glad you asked.  I mean something very much like “icky” (I know, I know, all this barbaric postmodern jargon), except deeper, more corrosive, harder to wash off the next day.

Here’s the back story.  Recently, Janet and I and another academic couple were talking shop, and I mentioned Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—not as some kind of wry metacommentary on the conversation itself, mind you, but for the minor point that Martha lambastes George for (among other things) not having the ambition to become department chair.  I find this highly amusing.  Anyway, that started Janet on Carnal Knowledge, which not only creeped her out when we first saw it eight or nine years ago, but which sparked one of those Interpretive Conflicts (Spousal Version) over whether the movie was misogynist.  (Eventually I settled on something like, “I think you’re wrong not to credit the film as a critique, but then again, I can’t say that Jules Feiffer’s script is kind to its female characters, either.”) So all four of us planned to rent Carnal Knowledge and see it again.

This time the creepiness lasted for days.  I did see a bunch of things I’d missed the first time around—the brilliance of the editing as Candace Bergen dances with Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel, the tennis scene in which all the tennis-playing is off camera, the extreme close-ups, the stripping away of almost everything in the world except these few characters—all of which left me with a nasty sense of claustrophobia as well as creepiness.  (I’m sure I’m thinking of all those incredibly tight shots because I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc this week.) But Art Garfunkel at dinner with Jack Nicholson, tugging on his cigar as he muses over the inadequacy of his sex life with Candace Bergen?  Ann-Margaret’s descent into abjection and immobility?  Garfunkel’s defense of his love for the barely-postpubescent Carol Kane?  Everything about Nicholson’s character from start to finish?  Creepy, creepy, creepy.

I’m sure there are similarly good/ serious/ creepy films out there, so (as usual) suggest ‘em.  I have one question, though.  Look at what happened to the principals: Ann-Margaret was plunged into depression for years because of her role in this film.  Art Garfunkel disappeared and was next seen on a milk carton somewhere in Central Park.  Jack Nicholson basically became his character, Jonathan Fuerst (and sometimes even plays older or parodic versions of him, as well).  And Mike Nichols, after opening with Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, and Catch-22 (not bad for a start), followed this with Day of the Dolphin and then . . . nothing, really, until he resurfaced in the mid-1980s as a director of bland, airplane-movie things like Heartburn and Regarding Henry.  Only Candace Bergen seems to have been left untouched by the movie’s soul-destroying creepiness, and I imagine that’s because her character escaped early, and is nowhere to be found in the second half of the film (except for that still in Jonathan’s “Ballbusters on Parade”).  I think that’s the sign of a powerfully creepy movie—its effects last for years, decades.  God only knows what happened to the gaffer and the key grip on this one.  But does anyone out there know just what happened to Nichols in the 1970s?

Have a good uncreepy weekend. 

Posted by Michael on 05/06 at 11:59 AM
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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Final exam

My first semester of teaching at the University of Illinois was terrible.  That is, the university was fine; I was terrible.  I taught two sections of American literature since 1914—a pretty easy assignment to start out with—and botched them both.  It was my first semester as a real live assistant professor, and I was thoroughly uncomfortable with being called “Professor Bérubé,” so I taught frenetically and obliviously.  But that wasn’t the half of it: our entire household was frazzled.  We only had Nick then (he was three and a half; Jamie was born two years later), but we couldn’t afford full-time day care at $90 a week (this was before I’d pegged my salary to David Horowitz’s, of course), so we signed Nick up for half-day care in the afternoons.  Janet and I both taught in the mornings (MWF), but we took what we could get, and nobody was offering half-day care in the mornings.  So Janet taught from 9 to 9:50 a.m. and then again at 11; I taught from 10 to 10:50 and then again at 12.  Day care began at 1 pm.  I would take a Champaign city bus to campus with Nick, getting to a stop four blocks north of the English Building at 9:47, walk Nick to the building, meet Janet in the hall, and hand off Nick with three or four minutes to spare; at a few minutes to 11, Janet would pass him back to me; he and I would grab lunch while Janet taught, and then I’d toss him back to Janet, and she would take him to day care.

Nick didn’t think much of this arrangement, either.  When he got to day care, the first item on the agenda was an hour-long “nap.” Nick didn’t take naps.  I leave Nick’s experience of day care to your imagination.

To make matters worse, Nick was sick all semester long.  This was 1989, the very last year before the industrialized world developed nebulized steroids for asthmatics (Vanceril, for those of you in the know), and Nick had one bronchial event after another.  And they still permitted leaf-burning in Champaign-Urbana in 1989, which meant that for weeks at a time during October and November, Nick left the house at his peril.

So we were all anxious and sleep-deprived and generally scrambled.  I’d often finish up my class preps at 2 am, give Nick his overnight meds (no point going to bed at 12 or 1 when you had to do 2 am meds, now), then teach the next morning on some mixture of caffeine and adrenaline.  It didn’t work.  I can still remember my course evaluations that term—a lousy 3.9 out of 5 in one section, and an abysmal 3.6 in the other.  (My average over twelve years at Illinois wound up at 4.45, pretty good but not great.  But you can get some sense of what a 3.6 means.)

And then came the final exam.  At last!  I’d already turned in the grades for the 10 am section, and now I would return my 12 pm section’s final papers, read their exams that night and the next day, and I’d be done, done, done.  The exam was at 7 pm, and I spent the afternoon in my office, grading the last eight or nine papers I’d be returning that evening.

Now, a word about my office.  (It’s not absolutely critical to the story, but it’ll help to set the scene.) At the time, the enormous, rambling old English Building was in the middle of a long-term renovation, and though I had a huge corner office on the third floor (which I “shared” with someone who never used it, because she was the associate head and had an administrative office on the second floor), it was a huge corner office in the unrenovated part of the building.  The staircase on my end of the building went down only to the second floor; below that there was nothing but a dark airshaft, at the bottom of which, I was fond of saying, there was surely a heap of gasoline-soaked rags and a few smoldering cigarette butts.  On the second floor, there were the remains of a basketball court (the building had once been a gymnasium, and its central atrium was once a swimming pool); this had long since been cubicled and subdivided into graduate teaching assistant “offices.”

At 6:30 or so I finished up my grading, left my office, went to the men’s room (the nearest one was down that flight of unrenovated stairs, across from the basketball court), chatted for a few moments with one of the graduate students, came back upstairs, and . . . found that I had somehow locked my door behind me.  With my keys, and my graded papers, and all my final exams on the other side of the door.

Oy, I said to myself, now I have to go and get the master key from the secretaries . . . oh my god, there are no secretaries!  It’s a quarter to seven.  The #@%&ing department office is closed. I began to think of some way I could go in through my window, but this would involve climbing outside through the second-floor TA offices, then using my super spider powers to scamper across the front of the building and up one flight.  It didn’t seem likely.

Panicking, I ran around on the second floor, wondering if perhaps I could break into the department office instead and grab myself that master key.  Now, there’s a memorable way to start your career!  And just when I was rattling the office door to see if it would be worth trying the old credit-card shimmy, who should come walking down the hall but the Department Head Himself!

Ahem.  As I explained to this curious and patient man that I was not in fact a criminal but merely a kolossal klutz, I noted that it was now five minutes to seven and that I would truly, truly appreciate it if he would be so kind as to open the office, find a master key in the secretaries’ supply cabinets, and allow me to get back into my office and give my final.

He found the whole thing rather amusing.  And yes, he got the master key for me.

So, for all of you who are either giving or taking finals this week, best of luck.  Just remember to keep your office keys in your pockets at all times.

Posted by Michael on 05/05 at 01:46 PM
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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Casting about

A shorter post today—and, just to thank everyone for sticking with me through the last two 2000-word affairs, I’m tossing in a Fun Game as well.

OK, so everyone’s asking me if I’ve seen the profile of David Horowitz in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education.  Well, of course I have!  I’m a shadow member of the Network, after all.  And with all due respect to Siva, whose response you should definitely check out, I happen to think that the article is an important Next Step in the enterprise of getting Horowitz to discredit himself (thus distributing the “discrediting” task more evenly and fairly).

When last we heard David’s fantasies about professors, he was telling people that we make $150,000 and work six hours a week.  Here’s the update:

To gain the recognition he believed he deserved, Mr. Horowitz established [the Center for the Study of Popular Culture], which features conservative programs such as catered lunches with right-leaning luminaries who discuss their latest books. “I don’t have a platform in The New York Times,” he says.

If he were liberal, he contends, he could be an editor at the Times or a department chairman at Harvard University. And his life story would have already been told on the big screen. Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, his autobiography, has been out for eight years. “Someone would have made a film out of it if I was a leftist,” he says bitterly.

He claims he would make more money as a liberal, too, “at least three times,” what he earns now. According to the center’s most recent available tax form, Mr. Horowitz received an annual salary of $310,167 in 2003. He declines to give his current income, but in addition to his salary, Mr. Horowitz receives about $5,000 for each of the 30 to 40 campus speeches he gives each year.

As it happens, my salary of $930,501 is precisely three times Horowitz’s, and it’s a tad on the high end for Penn State English professors, but there’s a reason for that.  When I was offered this job five years ago, the dean said, “what can I tell you about Penn State?” I replied, “Penn State looks just great, frankly, but I’d need to be paid three times whatever David Horowitz makes.” “Done,” said the dean.  And you know, $930,501 really goes a long way in central Pennsylvania!  David didn’t even mention that—when you factor in the cost of living in State College as compared to Los Angeles, liberal professors in college towns really do turn out to be among the nation’s financial elite.  And you all thought we were merely hoarding cultural capital!  Bwah hah hah hah hah hah hah.

Then again, I’ve gotten paid $5,000 for a lecture exactly zero times—and my lectures are usually written out word by word, and they involve actual, sustained, sequential arguments; they’re not just rambling, stream-of-consciousness rants, like the “lectures” of some people I know.  And I lecture only a couple of times a year.  Really.  (In that bitter little review of The Employment of English, Mark Bauerlein got off the sentence, “Revealing how often he is invited to lecture by conference organizers, student organizations, literature departments, and faculty senates . . . Bérubé amply corroborates his entry into the star system.” But actually, that book referenced only four talks—one of which, as I pointed out in my reply, was a three-minute, bullhorn-enhanced speech in support of Illinois’s graduate student union, and one of which was an appearance before CUNY’s Faculty Senate, for which I was offered $100—which I refused.) So probably it all balances out in the end.

Now, here’s the Fun Game:  taking a tip from Geoff (in the comments to my last post), let’s cast Radical Son:  The Movie!  I think Dennis Hopper is a natural for the lead (he even has the right initials), but feel free to offer other suggestions.  (Also I think John Forsythe should do the voice of Richard Mellon Scaife, just as he did Charlie in Charlie’s Angels.) We’ll also need an entire supporting cast.  They’ll be rarely seen—we don’t want to take the focus off David—but they’re crucial as backdrops to the main story.  And what a story it is!  How many sequels should we plan?  Let’s get busy . . . there’s so much work ahead of us!

Posted by Michael on 05/04 at 09:05 AM
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