Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Sublime Hipster of Ideology

This little ditty is something of a post-date, given that it initially came out at the end of summer, but I thought it merited posting: Zizek rails against Kung Fu Panda:
If you ask me for really dangerous ideological films, for ideology at its purest, I’d say Kung Fu Panda. I saw it five times because my son likes it. The movie is extremely cynical in that you know they make fun of all this ideology, of Buddhism and these things, but the message is even though we know it is not true and we make fun, you have to believe in it. It’s this split of you know it’s not true but just make like you believe in it.
I think Zizek could have gone further to denounce the actor who provides the voice of the panda, Jack Black. I'm no fan of this guy -- his "comedy" musical group, Tenacious D, is a travesty, and his antics are about as subtle and funny as a Dane Cook set -- and his recent movies are testament to exactly what Zizek is talking about here.

Take the woeful Be Kind Rewind (dir. Michel Gondry), where the "magic of moviemaking" by indie artists in the hipster set is extolled through the most contrived of Hollywood conventions: local boys make good, independent business takes on corporate encroachment, black men (Danny Glover's and Mos Def's characters) lend "authenticity" and street cred to Jack Black's buffoonishness (the gang's last film is a biopic of Fats Waller's life). It's one of those paradoxes of belief where we know that Be Kind Rewind is a (modest) Hollywood production (New Line Cinema) but are supposed to will ourselves into believing that it allies itself with amateurs, bohemians, and outcasts. Race, and specifically American blackness, is one of the primary metaphors that Gondry enlists to suture this ideological link.

Gondry is also the director of the concert documentary Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which I actually enjoyed. But given his use of race and "black music" in Be Kind Rewind, I have to wonder to what extent Gondry isn't just another white hipster boy riffing on African American culture to shore up his own artistic credentials. Need I mention the work of Wes Anderson here? A paper on the circulation of black and brown characters in Anderson's films -- The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited -- has yet to be written.

Worst President Ever

Slate has published a readable gloss on the political life of Herbert Hoover (in office 1929-1933), who is widely considered to be one of the worst Presidents ever. It was Hoover's misfortune to have the stock market crash just seven months into his Presidency, but it was Hoover's choice to take a largely "hands off" approach to economic recovery and social welfare. Unsympathetic to the suffering masses ("Nobody actually starved," he said) and unwilling to let the government prop up relief programs, Hoover became incredibly unpopular and was booted out of office after one term. It was Hoover's successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would craft the New Deal as the government's response to the economic downturn.

The article begins with this wonderful, and telling, anecdote:
In 1932, the parents of a 4-year-old went to court to change his legal name. Christened Herbert Hoover Jones in 1928, when the commerce secretary and Republican presidential nominee was a national hero, the boy deserved relief, said his parents, from "the chagrin and mortification which he is suffering and will suffer" for sharing a moniker with the now-disgraced chief executive. His new name: Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bush, We Bid You A-Doo

Slate and the BBC have compiled their favorite "Bushisms" over the past eight years, and the results are hilarious...and sad, given that W. was our president for two full terms. The Republicans' strategy of celebrating W.'s willful ignorance as some kind of "folksy," from-the-gut authenticity now lies in tatters.

Here are some of the best Bushisms out of the bunch:

"I want to thank my friend, Senator Bill Frist, for joining us today. He married a Texas girl, I want you to know. Karyn is with us. A West Texas girl, just like me."
Nashville, Tennessee, 27 May 2004

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."
Washington, D.C., 5 August 2004

"Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat."
Washington, D.C., 17 September 2004

"Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"
Florence, South Carolina, 11 January 2000

"Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream."
LaCrosse, Wisconsin, 18 October 2000

"I understand small business growth. I was one."
New York Daily News, 19 February 2000

"Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."
Poplar Bluff, Missouri, 6 September 2004

"I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office."
Washington, D.C., 12 May 2008

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Back List in Print

The University of Minnesota Press has launched a new series of books -- based on its extensive back list, going all the way back to 1925. Minnesota Archive Editions (MAE) is a collaborative venture between UMP, Amazon.com, Minneapolis-based BookMobile, and Google Books. As some industry news stories point out, MAE allows consumers to access rare, out-of-print titles from the publisher's archives 1) at next to no cost to the publisher, and 2) through digitized distribution channels that maximize profit for the intermediaries.

This initiative is the latest example (in a long, long list of examples) of what Chris Anderson has called the "long tail" of technology-mediated, consumer-oriented economics. Anderson's basic thesis is that digital information technologies have streamlined and made hyper-efficient the old distribution networks of bringing commodities from the factory to points of consumption. Today, at minimal cost to the producer (who agrees to digitize his wares) and with the simple click of a button (on the consumer's end), we get books, movies, and music downloaded onto our computer or delivered to our door. The so-called long tail suggests that this relatively cheap method of distribution makes "low" demand for products still profitable for the producer because it doesn't cost him much to make his goods available to consumer niches.

Although MAE doesn't promise to be the next iTunes, it's sure to fascinate the academic world with its back list, and will likely turn a modest profit from scholars and intellectuals purchasing previously out-of-print titles. I myself am looking forward to the reprinting of Charles Wharton Stork's Arcadia Borealis: Selected Poems of Erik Axel Karlfeld (1938).

Friday, January 9, 2009

Fußball Ist Geil

The winter break is over, and that means European league soccer is returning to action this weekend. I thought I'd celebrate with a fantastic YouTube find.

This clip (~1970s) from a West German television program features the (at the time) latest soccer-themed high fashion. The elite soccer league in Germany is called the Bundesliga, and the clothing on display in this broadcast is inspired by the colors and designs of Germany's most famous clubs (Schalke, Hamburg, Dortmund, etc.). All I can say: Wow.

A Porn Bailout, or, What Would Richard Shelby Do?

Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, has been bullish in opposing any form of government bailout for the auto industry. His logic is of the typical free-market, survival-of-the-fittest ideologue. But what would Sen. Shelby say to a proposed $5 billion porn bailout? Alabama is conservative, redder-than-red territory, no doubt, but surely many of his constituents can fess up to not wanting to see the American porn industry go down the tubes.

Larry Flynt, head of Larry Flynt Publications and its flagship publication Hustler, and Joe Francis, of Girls Gone Wild, have been working on a bailout proposal for U.S. porn. Gonzo news source TMZ already tracked down a few Congressmen and one Senator to get their take on the proposed plan, and the signs don't look promising. Still, Flynt is determined to relieve some of the burdens from the porn industry: "People are too depressed to be sexually active...This is very unhealthy as a nation...It's time for Congress to rejuvenate the sexual appetite of America."

Overseas the idea of a porn bailout has been met with more welcoming arms. The BBC brought a porn director on air to discuss the actual economics of the industry. Diversification in these tough economic (but bewilderingly hyper-technologized) times seemed to be his Plan B, in lieu of a government bailout of porn.

Following this take on Flynt and Francis's announcement, an Australian writer noted that there would be valuable economic lessons to learn from the U.S. government underwriting porn: "If the porn industry can be saved, the financial sector could be taught Porn Economics, the idea of sales of something people actually want, for the purpose of profit, as distinct from Subprime Economics, the sale of sexless garbage nobody ever needed for the purpose of destroying the global economy."

Back in the States, at least one independent businessman supports the proposed bailout. Glenn Wilson of Shreveport, Louisiana, says sales have been declining at his sex stores, Fun Shop Too. According to a local news source, Wilson would welcome a porn bailout in the hope of sparking sales.

In more promising news, one writer and sex activist notes that, even though the porn industry may be flagging at the moment, independent sex workers are likely to survive the recession without too much trouble. In surveying prostitutes' and escorts' success as advertisers, Carol Forsloff sees a canny ability to navigate tough economic times with drive and gusto -- and a theoretically inexhaustible set of "goods." Forsloff concludes, "So while the boys are asking for a bailout, the women carry on as business women with advertising and the like. The fact that they advertise widely, on their backs, on street corners, in phone directories and on the Internet, likely shows they are better prepared than Flynt and Francis."

I suppose if Richard Shelby and his colleagues reject Flynt and Francis's appeal for a porn bailout, they can always turn to the example of independent sex workers as people who are weathering the recession in the most innovative, business-savvy ways.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

On Technocratic Style

Apparently Louis Menand of The New Yorker has already written a review-cum-farce about the issues of writing with Microsoft Word that I've taken up here and here. "The End Matter" deserves a complete reading, but here are some highlights:

On Word:
First of all, it is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program. Its terribleness is of a piece with the terribleness of Windows generally, a system so overloaded with icons, menus, buttons, and incomprehensible Help windows that performing almost any function means entering a treacherous wilderness of pop-ups posing alternatives of terrifying starkness: Accept/Decline/Cancel; Logoff/Shut Down/Restart; and the mysterious Do Not Show This Warning Again. You often feel that you’re not ready to make a decision so unalterable; but when you try to make the window go away your machine emits an angry beep. You double-click. You triple-click. Beep beep beep beep beep. You are being held for a fool by a chip.
On Clippy, Word's late Help icon, an eyeballed paper clip:
[I]f, God forbid, you ever begin a note or a bibliography entry with the letter “A.,” when you hit Enter, Word automatically types “B.” on the next line. Never, btw (which, unlike “poststructuralism,” is a word in Word spellcheck), ask that androgynous paper clip anything. S/he is just a stooge for management, leading you down more rabbit holes of options for things called Wizards, Macros, Templates, and Cascading Style Sheets.
On the Chicago Manual of Style's somewhat curious advice about punctuation:
Some of the advice is frankly a matter of taste. “An exclamation point added in brackets to quoted material to indicate editorial protest or amusement is strongly discouraged, since it appears contemptuous,” the authors counsel. “The Latin expression sic (thus) is preferred.” First of all, the reason the bracketed exclamation point appears contemptuous is that you use it when you wish to express contempt. There is nothing wrong with contempt. Second (which Chicago insists on, although generations of pedants have believed “secondly” to be the proper usage), sic is a far more damning interpolation, combining ordinary, garden-variety contempt with pedantic condescension. Elsewhere in Punctuation, the instructions are sometimes the reverse of enlightened. What could the authors possibly have been thinking when they committed the following sentence to print: “The semicolon, stronger than a comma but weaker than a period, can assume either role [!]” ?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Does AutoCorrect Correct AutoCorrect?

The answer to the question posed in my title is, Yes, it does. Which is to say, the word "AutoCorrect" is included in Microsoft Word's database of words that are deemed legitimate words in the English language, and therefore not in need of squiggly-red-line correction as you type it in a document. Try it for yourself: compare AutoCorrect with LoobyBooby or HarlemGlobetrotters. AutoCorrect is given the green light, while the other two are stopped in their tracks with the iconic red line. HarperCollins -- the publisher -- is, like AutoCorrect, deemed to be legitimate.

I've written elsewhere on this blog about Jacques Derrida's efforts to figure out AutoCorrect on his word-processing program (whether Derrida was using Word or not is debatable -- but it's highly likely that he was). More recently, Chris Wilson has written an article about Word's sluggish updating of its word database. Because Microsoft employs human-supervised editorship of the database, the process of including new words in it is slow and uneven. Wilson suggests that Word adopt a Google way of analyzing the correct spelling of words algorithmically, based largely on the recognition of frequently used words (and their [mostly] correct spellings) online.

We aren't there yet, of course. Which leaves open the possibility to experiment with words (mostly proper nouns) that you think may or may not appear in the Word word database. If you come across a "legitimate" word (using your own defintion of "legitimate" -- it can come from academese or it may be something more befitting of the Urban Dictionary) that has yet to be registered in the database, accept it into your own Word program for Microsoft to consider whenever it uploads user information.

Here are a few approved (+) and unapproved (-), or yet-to-be approved, word combinations that I came up with:

Jacques Derrida (+) vs. Alain Badiou (-)
Frantz Fanon (+) vs. Gayatri Spivak (-) (most South Asian names were rejected)
Blackburn Rovers (+) vs. Wigan Athletic (-)
Radiohead (+) vs. Wilco (-)
Ryan Vu (+) vs. Gerry Canavan (-)
Motherfucker (+) vs. Mofo (-)