You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2009.
Brah, you watch Watchmen yet?… Brah, you got to. It’s like 300, but the story is all like deep and sh*t.
If you can come to this, it’ll almost certainly be worth your time. And it’s free! Richardson is an outstanding historian, and a good presenter, and her reading of the political and economic events leading up to the Wounded Knee massacre is well worth your consideration.
(This beast began as the post I promised last week. Now that I’ve played hooky all my points about the uniqueness of Watchmen‘s narrative mode seem more salient in light of their absence from the film. So I decided to fold my review into the half-composed post. But for the record I still never get around to discussing my larger theory of Manhattan as readerly proxy.)
Some books teach you how to read them: Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, JR, and Infinite Jest spring first to mind. From a purely formal perspective Watchmen belongs in their company. It does to the conventions of comic narrative what Joyce did to realism, Pynchon did to pulp, Gaddis did to dialogue and Foster Wallace did to sentiment. All the techniques discussed in the following had been used in comics before—there is nothing new under the oxen of the sun—but never in the service of creating a new breed of reader. Consider the following sequence of panels from the funeral of the Comedian:
The first three panels transition moment-to-moment. Such transitions slow down the action by forcing the reader to observe actions divided into their constiuent parts. They typically depict a realization on the part of the character which the author wants the reader to linger over (for example) or a demonstration of how fast or powerful someone is. But the “action” that Moore slices into its constiuent parts consists of “listening while standing still.”
For a hack like Mark Millar the amount of dialogue squeezed into the slow zoom of those panels would stretch credulity. But Moore is no Millar. (How better to compel readers to pay attention to a face than four consecutive panels that zoom in on it?) Moore wants the reader to focus his attention on the expression Ozymandias wears and the pat content of the eulogy. The payoff of the latter is dialogue-driven and immediate; the former, however, pays off in a way only comics can. When the moment-to-moment transitions give way to the scene-to-scene transitions in the third and fourth panels the change in Ozymandias’s expression is as subtle as it is important:
So much of this is so good, and so much of this is so bad that it’s good, and some is just bad. Spielberg, Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan brainstorm Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Lucas: I think basically he’s very cynical about the whole thing. Maybe he thinks that most archeologists are just full of shit, and that somebody’s going to rip this stuff off anyway. Better that he rips it off and gets it to a museum where people can study it, and rip it off right.
Lucas: … there’s a couple native bearers, whatever, and sort of a couple of Mexican, well not Mexican… Let’s put it…
Spielberg: They’re like Mayan.
Lucas: They’re the third world local sleazos. Whether they’re Mexicans or Arabs or whatever.
On this day in 1926, Congressman Victor Berger (Socialist-Wisconsin) met Calvin Coolidge at the White House to ask the president’s support for a pardon of Eugene Debs, the Socialist leader and frequent presidential candidate who spent more than two years in federal prison for a speech of June 1918, whose “probable effect will be to prevent recruiting.”1 Coolidge reportedly displayed “sympathetic interest”—his predecessor Harding had commuted Debs’s sentence to time served.
When reporting on Berger’s meeting, the New York Times said Berger was trying to restore Debs’s citizenship, tout court; while it was apparently commonplace to refer to Debs having lost his citizenship as a result of the conviction, Nick Salvatore explains it was not so, though he might have lost his right to vote.
In September of 1926, Debs’s brother Theodore helped him to register to vote, so he could assert his right irrespective of pardon. Debs died before the election that would have allowed him to test the principle.
1The best line of which is, “You remember that, at the close of Theodore Roosevelt’s second term as President, he went over to Africa to make war on some of his ancestors.”
This is from the Forward, not the Onion.
Rahm Emanuel is the tough-but-fair, no-nonsense chief of staff for President Barack Obama. He is also a former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The loving husband of Amy Rule and father of three small children, he’s taken lessons he learned in the rough-and-tumble world of politics and applied them to the challenges of fatherhood in his new book, “I Made You, I Can Break You Just as Easily: Lessons on Parenting From Inside the Beltway.”
When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just… forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall. The season is almost upon us.
Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?
The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
There’s an interesting philosophical worry in the neighborhood: responsibility for omissions. The parent, perhaps distracted or tired, simply doesn’t think about the child in the car seat. The forgetting isn’t an action one chooses or does deliberately; the thought about the child simply fails to materialize. Like sleeping through an alarm, failing to notice another’s distress, or not attending to some important detail, forgetting the child isn’t the sort of thing we do at will. Yet there’s a strong intuition that one is morally responsible only for things one does, and, if this is true, it’s hard to make sense of responsibility and blame in cases like this. Nevertheless we seem to blame and punish for these sorts of failures. (Another place this puzzle comes up is responsibility for beliefs, which don’t seem to be under direct voluntary control either.)
Four ways to respond: (i) break the connection between control/doing at will and responsibility (i.e., say that we can be responsible for things that we don’t control in the relevant sense, then give another account of why we’re responsible for some things and not others– ideally one that explains why we’d think there might be a control condition on responsibility in the first place); (ii) try to save that connection between the will and responsibility by showing that there’s some prior intentional action in virtue of which the agent controlled the outcome (someone in the literature– I think it’s George Sher– calls this the “benighting act,” the one that leaves the agent in position to forget, oversleep, or whatever); (iii) argue that we do have control in cases like this, because control isn’t a matter of doing things “at will” (this has more application in the case of controlling belief); (iv) keep the control condition and bite the bullet by denying that we’re responsible in cases like this. It’s an interesting problem.
On this day in 1971, a group of activists broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole about a thousand government documents with a mysterious notation, “COINTELPRO.” The public revelation of these documents ranks with the Pentagon Papers as one of the most significant exposés of government secrets in U.S. history.
The burglars, who have never been identified, entered the two-person office in Media as much of the nation was huddled around television sets to watch the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight. The activists did not fully understand the documents they found, but they quickly decided that the public had the right to see them.
About two weeks later, two prominent antiwar lawmakers and reporters at major newspapers received copies of the files in plain brown envelopes. Most of the recipients accepted the FBI’s judgment that the files were “secret”: the New York Times and Los Angeles Times did not write about the documents, and the legislators returned their sets to the FBI. But Washington Post editors believed that the public had the right to know about the spying. The Post broke the first COINTELPRO story on March 24, 1971, revealing how the bureau had used mail carriers and a campus switchboard operator to eavesdrop on a radical professor at Swarthmore College.
A Senate investigating committee headed by Frank Church of Idaho later revealed the vast reach of COINTELPRO, which was the acronym for the FBI’s counterintelligence program. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover started the operation in 1956 in response to Supreme Court rulings that made it more difficult to prosecute Communists. Under COINTELPRO, the bureau recruited “informants” – a euphemism for “informer” – to infiltrate the dwindling ranks of the Communist Party, disrupt its plans, and discredit its members. COINTELPRO agents planted “snitch jackets,” or false letters identifying a target as an informer, wrote anonymous poison pen letters, and spread rumors about political apostasies and marital infidelities. In other words, the FBI did not just monitor these individuals, but tried to break up their marriages, “seed mistrust, sow misinformation,” and provoke them to commit crimes so that they could be arrested.
The FBI originally directed this program at American Communists, but it soon broadened its definition of communism. By 1960, when the Communist Party counted about five thousand members in the United States, the bureau maintained more than eighty times that number of files on “subversive” Americans at its headquarters, and FBI field offices around the country collected even more. One purpose of COINTELPRO, according to an official memo, was to “enhance the paranoia endemic in [dissident] circles” and convince activists that “there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” The agents believed that paranoid, divided dissident groups were easier to handle than purposeful, united dissident groups. In other words, the FBI conspired to create fear of conspiracy.
By the mid-1960s, COINTELPRO had expanded to spy on, infiltrate, and disrupt a wide variety of activist groups, including the antiwar movement, women’s liberation groups, civil rights organizations, and the black power movement. The FBI also targeted some “white hate” groups like the Ku Klux Klan, but most of its efforts went into disrupting the left. Most notoriously, FBI officials spied on Martin Luther King, Jr. At Hoover’s direction, agents wiretapped King’s phones, bugged his hotel rooms, and did everything they could to take him “off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence,” as one FBI memo put it. The FBI peddled evidence of King’s extramarital affairs to public officials and journalists. Just before King was to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the assistant FBI director sent the new laureate his own copy of the evidence. King received a composite tape in the mail that included audio recordings of his alleged trysts. A letter sent with the tape concluded with this threat: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. …You are done. There is but one way out for you.” The FBI, in other words, tried to persuade the internationally recognized leader of the American civil rights movement to kill himself.
The Church Committee denounced COINTELPRO as a “sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association.” With all due respect to the committee, FBI agents are, by definition, not vigilantes; they’re agents of the state. In this case, they were state agents of repression. It took vigilantes who fought for the right to know – those burglars in Media – to bring this secret government program to public attention.
Hurm. I feel as though I’m stepping on SEK’s subject here. But I saw Watchmen last night, and.. it left me rather unaffected. This came as something of a surprise to me, as I am usually fairly easy to satisfy when it comes to action films. Flip a truck, jump Galactica into atmosphere, fight Agent Smith and say “there is no spoon”, double-bladed lightsaber, fly around in a cheesy red suit, and I’m usually on board with thinking it was an enjoyable popcorn flick. Watchmen didn’t grab me, and after the jump I will explain why with spoilers.
Remember to spring forward at 2 am. Or you might be
late early late early untimely for brunch tomorrow morning. And nobody wants that. Nobody.
The level-headed and thoughtful Mark Thoma is “unusually annoyed” by opponents of the fiscal stimulus:
are you proud that you delayed policy until it was too late to help a lot of people who are now unemployed, people whose lives have been ruined by sudden unemployment? Do you hold your head high and tell people about your hard work to delay and trim back the stimulus package so it would be less effective and allow even more lives to be ruined? It’s not just politics like you tell yourself, there are livelihoods at stake, though I suppose it’s comforting to believe it’s all just a game, all about making Obama look bad, rather than about helping people struggling to make ends meet.
And those of you still saying it’s not that bad, or not as bad as [pick episode], what are you thinking? You were wrong to this point, very wrong, and people are worse off because of it. Many of you believe stimulus policies will work, but keep saying we can’t do them fast enough. You are still arguing, unashamedly, that you know a recovery is just around the corner and any attempts to help people will come too late to do any good. It’s the same argument you’ve been making for more than a year now and it was wrong then, and it’s likely to be just as wrong now. The end is not just around the corner, especially for employment which lags behind output, yet here you are dishing out more of the same.
So when you hear about someone who worked hard all their lives to provide for their family, someone who always did the right thing but is now unemployed and unable to meet the household’s needs due to unemployment, someone who might have benefitted from an earlier and more aggressive stimulus package, pat yourself on the back and say “I helped to make that happen.”
A friend sent me the text of a recent WSJ editorial entitled “Will This Crisis Produce a ‘Gatsby’?” I’ll link to it later—for now I want to recreate my bad-faith reading experience in all its glory. My first reaction was to the title, even though I know authors never write their own titles. But this one seemed sufficiently troublesome to warrant criticism. I wrote:
You would think someone at the WSJ would know that enough about literature to know that The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. If you grant the title its premises, the question should be “Did Someone Write a ‘Gatsby’ in 2004 and If So Who Was He or She and What Was the Title of It?” But that’s not quite right.
The WSJ‘s infuriating decision to publish the titles of books in quotation marks means that we’re not even sure whether the current crisis will be producing a novel affectionately called Gatsby or a fictional Jew with class insecurities who meets an untimely end. Because we have umpteen examples of the latter—Curb Your Enthusiasm may even be a Gatsby-in-progress. Tune in next season to find out!
But even that’s not quite right. Given that The Great Gatsby preceded the financial crisis by more than half a decade, maybe the author wants to claim that Fitzgerald’s slim volume caused the Great Depression. In which case we must discover and burn all copies of the mysterious 2004 novel or unwrite the fictional Jew. Obama said we all needed to chip in. This is how we, as literary scholars, can do our part!
Then I started reading the text itself. The mention of Louis Adamic seemed promising, and the rest of the article built what I took to be a fairly solid case until the last few paragraphs:
John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” made the Joad family’s flight from the dust bowl into an emblem of people coming together to remake their world. A similar image was implicit in the very title of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s documentary book “An American Exodus.” Even works of light entertainment like the massively popular “Gone With the Wind” or John Ford’s landmark Western “Stagecoach” were in keeping with the prevailing message of the times. All these works told of epic journeys in which a group of people overcame destructive competition in their discovery of a common destiny. Each called for Americans to act collectively to remake a democratic society where opportunity would be open to all.
In effect, such declarations helped lay the cultural groundwork for the New Deal, providing the ideological infrastructure for the new governmental institutions created during the ‘30s.
If there’s one thing I learned writing my dissertation, it’s that you can’t throw words like “ideology” around like that—especially not when you’re claiming that a book published in 1939 laid the groundwork for the policies that were curtailed in 1939 by “Dr. Win-the-War.” If I’d tried to end-around history like that I would’ve—I don’t know what would’ve happened to me, actually, because I’d learned early in my graduate career to avoid situations in which I could be browbeaten by “the fact, man, the irrefragable fact!”
I continued blustering on—scrolling back up the article, snipping the bits that confirmed my claim of sloppy historicism and snarking mightily upon them—until I returned to those final paragraphs and hit the byline:
Sean McCann, a professor of English at Wesleyan University, is the author of “A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government.”
At first I thought I’d been pranked. Then I realized I’d done it to myself: I’d read the article about as uncharitably as it could be read. I’d clipped the sections suggestive of causality . . . and ignored all those that spoke directly to the notion that the cultural output of the ‘30s reflected a growing disenchantment with the vision of social mobility that’d been aggressively asserted in the ‘20s. See Sean’s article for all the details.
Me? I’m off to go where they send half-cocked purveyors of online opinion when they misbehave: to The Corner. (Dunce cap not optional.)
A couple of links:
Speaking of superheroes, here’s last night’s debate at UC Davis between Brad DeLong and Michele Boldrin over whether the stimulus will or can work.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
Or that’s what it was supposed to be over. Instead Boldrin seemed to want to say, “but we need to fix the banks.” And DeLong would say, “yes, we do, but that doesn’t preclude stimulus.” And Boldrin would say, “I don’t want my taxes to go up.”
It’s actually a lot funnier, and more fun, than that summary suggests.
I’m holding off on that other Watchmen post because I think I might, um, be wrong about something fairly central to my argument. In the meantime, I have a declaration to make: I love Debbie Schlussel. Her review of Watchmen is simply to die for. To wit:
If you take your kids to see “The Watchmen,” you’re a moron. If you see it yourself, you’re also probably a moron and a vapid, indecent human being.
Set aside the fact that she punts the film’s title. Set aside the fact that she punts the film’s title even though the poster is included in the post. Concentrate instead on how she castigates hypothetical parents who would take their children to an R-rated film. Who is her audience? Who does she imagine it is?
I know, it’s being heavily marketed as a superhero movie, with action figures for your kids.
I see now—her audience consists of people who never click on links. Because if they did, they’d see Schlussel links to a limited run of 5,000 figures designed for I-buy-Power-Girl-statuettes crowd. But what about the hypothetical children? Who will care for the hypothetical children?
But then, we see cops looking over their naked, bloodied, dead bodies on a bed, with the words “LESBIAN WHORES,” written in blood on the wall.
Mommy, mommy, what’s a lesbian? What’s a whore?
So our hypothetical terrible parent takes her hypothetical toddler to see an R-rated movie and—what’s an R-rated picture again?
An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously. Children under 17 are not allowed to attend R-rated motion pictures unaccompanied by a parent or adult guardian. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about R-rated motion pictures in determining their suitability for their children. Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures.
Thank you, official Motion Picture Association of America guidelines. Let’s compare rubric of the R-rating to Schlussel’s litany of offensive scenes in the film:
Schlussel: Two superheroes have an explicit sex scene in a spaceship–she’s on top, then he’s on top, awesome–you can teach your young kids multiple sexual positions before they even reach puberty, by taking them to see this (there’s a less explicit sex scene between the slutty superheroine and another superhero not long before that).
MPAA: . . . sexually-oriented nudity . . .
Schlussel: Superhero “The Comedian” (a bad Robert Downey, Jr. look-alike) brutally beating and raping another superhero[.]
MPAA: . . . adult themes . . .
Schlussel: [S]uperheroes hurling obscenities[.]
MPAA: . . . hard language . . .
Schlussel: A man’s hands and arms being sawed off with an electric saw–we’re shown the bloody stumps and the bloody sawed off limbs in close up shots[.]
MPAA: . . . intense or persistent violence . . .
Seems Schlussel has been offended by the very elements the MPAA guidelines predict will be in an R-rated film. Her whole argument, then, is that some parents would be dumb enough to take young children to a film that no one believes young children should see—and that only Debbie Schlussel can save them from their own craven stupidity. That can’t be right. She can’t possibly fashion herself Debbie Schlussel: Defender of the Morbidly Obtuse. Or can she?
I picked up today’s mail. In amongst two bills, a periodical, and a letter from someone to a third party critiquing my views on the New Deal, I found an envelope bearing postage stamps from Sweden. Addressed to me in a clear hand, with a note at the corner saying, “Will tell you more when I return!” it contains no letter, only a slim volume by “Joe K”, purporting to transmit the English translation of a Swedish translation of “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Being or Nothingness’, commonly referred to as ‘The Giant Rat of Sumatra’.”
The cover art is by M. C. Escher. The flyleaf contains a letter from “The Writer” to Douglas Hofstadter. With a butterfly on the letterhead.
No, I am not kidding. So far I count five of my favorite things, and I haven’t got to the title page.
Pity the poor debt collector, who must needs collect on the debt of one who has departed this vale of tears with no estate to settle his earthly obligation. Observe her stress, her yoga mat. Ponder the careful control of her emotions and voice, the sympathy with which she calls the family of the deceased. How hard she works to convince them that this is the final rose to lay upon the grave….
…. ignore the fact that one of the risks of being a credit card company is that your customers may die without the assets to repay you, and the business has insurance to protect them against such eventualities. Ignore the fact that paying the debt is not merely a nice gesture, but transfers responsibility for the debt to a family that may be struggling. Ignore the fact that the collectors are not required to state that family of the deceased is under no obligation to pay debts.
Because reportering is hard.
Named for the grandfathers he’ll never have the good fortune to meet, John Galt Orrin Corliss Hayes Noon was born this morning at 4:06 a.m. He weighed in at 8 lb., 1 oz., and seems to be in fantastic health. Baby and father were both quite exhausted by the ordeal. The mother also appears to be strangely fatigued and uncomfortable.
So far, the child’s achievements have been mixed. He seems to have discovered an efficient means of acquiring food, yet he appears unable to comprehend simple questions from his two-year-old sister, including “Hey, what are you doing?” or “Would you pull my nose?” All of which means he’d be uniquely suited to cover the tax beat for ABC News if the opportunity presented itself for some reason.
My son’s birth, interestingly enough, coincides with the 131st anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano, by which Bulgaria was pried loose from the Ottoman Empire. Not that a relatively uneventful four hours of early-morning labor bear the slightest resemblance to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, but it’s entirely possible that my wife would disagree.
Red, white, and blue. Stars and Stripes. WPA balanced and paralleled by USA. Emphasis on “WORK”. And, of course, the nifty modernist typeface.
Red, white, and blue—plus green. Stars, but no stripes.* The “.gov” seems to me a nice device; stark “RECOVERY” would sound propagandish, but “recovery.gov” gives you the benefit of simplicity and utility. The gears are a bit olde-fashioned in the age of nanocircuitry, aren’t they, though? On the other hand, the little plant reminds me of EVE’s icon from Wall-E. Which lends it a usefully monitory resonance.
(Pre-preface: I didn’t intend on x-posting this, but I was asked why I didn’t so I am. If I seem to have a complex about x-posting that’s because I do. There’s something self-important about posting the same bit in three different places and I don’t want to seem self-important. I recognize there’s some overlap in audience, but I honestly believe it’s not nearly so great as other people think. Another way to ask this would be: how many of you read Acephalous or The Valve? Would it annoy you to see the same post in three places? Now for the actual preface.)
(Before I begin: Lane casually spoils the film, so do not click on that link if you want a virginal viewing experience.)
Anthony Lane would forestall serious criticism of his Watchmen review by characterizing defenders of the genre as “masonically loyal, prickling with a defensiveness and an ardor that not even Wagnerians can match.” Anyone who reads a comic not written by Art Spiegelman is a—but why go there? Lane’s acknowledgment that Moore wants nothing to do with Zack Snyder’s film seems a concession, but in the end he returns to throw a few roundhouses at Moore:
Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights.
To belabor the obvious: Watchmen is a book of the 1980s. Complaining about its concern with issues like containment, nuclear escalation, and mutually assured destruction would be akin to kvetching about the dowdiness of suburban American life in Far From Heaven—and Lane did not. So why fault Watchmen for being insufficiently universal in its appeal? Why insist that a film based on a graphic novel be of the moment the former is produced instead of the one represented in the latter?
Because Lane is an ignorant bigot.*