Sunday 01 September 2002

A Bottlematique?

From Nantucket, AKMA advises me that his Aunt “has a dishwashing device, evidently designed specifically for bottles, that might make a helpful adjunct to the Dishmatique.”

Naturally I’m anxious for details. A photograph, particularly, if AKMA can turn his attention from “looking for a cafe with an open wireless access point” to picking up his digital camera and taking a snap of the bottlewashing implement. You did take your digicam to Nantucket, AKMA, didn’t you?

The abundance of dishwashing devices around the world has suggested a business opportunity. (The US, not surprisingly, seems to have the greatest variety but on my next trip to Japan I’ll spend some time investigating Japanese dishwashing technology. A quick trip to Tokyu Hands in Shibuya should turn up some gems.) I’m thinking about putting together custom dishwashing kits and selling them on the Web. So that someone who (for example) is a home brew enthusiast with lots of cast iron cookware and an aversion to Teflon surfaces could order a bundle consisting of a standard Dishmatique, a Li’l Scrubber, and the bottlewasher favored by AKMA’s Aunt.

Update. Mark Pilgrim returned from his trip to Cupertino to discover that his beloved fianceé had bought and installed a sponge organizer in their sink:

Upon wondering aloud—in a roundabout sort of way—whether this was an example of suburban consumerism run amok, I was informed in no uncertain terms that sponge organizers are specially designed to allow sponges to dry more quickly, and are therefore good for the sponges’ health.

Mark doesn’t make it clear whether said sponges are used for actual dishwashing or merely for wiping down the sink and benches. If even one of the sponges is regularly employed in washing dishes, then I’ll have to add sponge organizers to my online catalog.

(One of the advantages of the Dishmatique is that if you store it on end, the detergent drains to the bottom of the handle and the sponge/scourer head is exposed to a constant flow of air.)

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Monday 02 September 2002

An impoverishment of language

“Let me reiterate back to what I was saying previously…”

George W. Bush? No, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. It’s Rex (a.k.a The Moose) Mossop, a famous Australian Rugby League (football) star turned sports commentator whose mangling of the English language won him tens of thousands of loyal fans who couldn’t care less about Rugby League but tuned in every week in the hope of a new Rexism such as “They haven’t a hope of scoring unless they make some forward progress,” “A good punch never hurt anybody,” or “The game’s not over until the final whistle.”

Rex’s greatest linguistic moment occurred in 1972, when he made a citizen’s arrest on an alleged pervert he discovered spying on nude bathers at a beach near his home. Interviewed on TV that evening, Mossop—who had long campaigned against the nudist beach—famously remarked: “I’m sick and tired of having male genitalia thrust down my throat.”

I fondly recalled The Moose when reading Joseph Duemer’s comments on the linguistically-challenged George W. Bush:

How, then, can I claim that the language of our current president is somehow lacking? The short answer is that GWB’s language is not a dialect of English—a variety spoken by a group—but the result of an individual affliction (though one aided & abetted by a class identification that makes him particularly insensitive to the relations between words & things, words & acts. This is a man who grew up insulated from consequences.) We can use language to either sharpen or dull or perceptions & concepts: whether we choose accuracy or muddle depends, not upon language, but upon how we use language. That is, our use of language reflects our moral & ethical constructions. By this argument, GWB’s morality is as incoherent as his syntax. Which is why American soldiers may very soon be engaged in house-to-house combat in Baghdad.

In his post, Joseph pointed to an opinion piece in the Boston Globe in which James Carroll wrote:

The United States, in fact, is in a crisis of language. This is what it means to have a president who, proudly inarticulate, has no real understanding of the relationship between words and acts, between rhetoric and intention.

His vacuous reflection of our mute anguish can be consoling because familiar - hence the high poll numbers - but it is the last thing the country needs. Mawkish bluster in cowboy clothes does nothing to nurture a community of purpose. It does the opposite.

As a candidate, Bush openly displayed his willful illiteracy. At a loss for words, and proud of it. Many voters were charmed. Others were appalled. Few understood, however, that this abdication of leadership by the intelligent use of language would be dangerous to democracy at home, a grievous threat to peace abroad.

Australian football fans were charmed by Rex too. But The Moose called a couple of football games each week—he wasn’t the leader of the greatest industrial and military power in human history.

At first glance, Bush’s presidency is incomprehensible for non-Americans: it’s not just that half the voters in the United States could take this amiable buffoon seriously enough to put him into the White House. Even more inexplicably, he manages to sustain high approval ratings. Just a month ago, an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll found 69 percent of Americans in favor of Bush’s overall job performance (down from 92 percent in October last year). Even now, 95% of Republican voters approve of the job Bush is doing.

In Australia, we watch him on the evening news as he struggles to put together a coherent sentence, looking up with pride from his printed speech on the rare occasion he manages to say something vaguely sensible—like the dullest boy in the slowest class, desperate for the teacher’s approval.

We think he is a joke.

We are not Americans.

And because we are not Americans we have not undergone the intense social programming whereby Americans are constructed. As Richard Eyre wrote, “In many respects, the US is still a religious country with a strong streak of Christian fundamentalism, but the true religion of America is not Christianity: it is America itself.”

Non-Americans, needless to say, do not worship in the Church of America. We do not believe in the American flag, the Constitution, the Supreme Court, the Senate or the House of Representatives. Most importantly, we have no loyalty to the institution of the Presidency of the United States. For us, GBW is just another politician (although he seems more inept than most). The fact that he is President counts for nothing at all. Our loyalties, such as they are, lie elsewhere.

Yet, a significant majority of Americans support President Bush. I can only surmise it is because each incumbent is sheathed in the power and prestige of the Presidency, so that even the least deserving individual is accorded the respect due to the office. In many ways, this is admirable for it ensures that social and political institutions survive the incompetence and venality of individual office-holders.

Perhaps that’s why, while the rest of us listen in disbelief as Bush bumbles and stumbles his way through one linguistic debacle after another, most Americans hear an eloquent preacher extolling the truth and virtue of the American way. It’s difficult not to conclude, though, that Bush’s failure to enlist international support for the Iraqi adventure—apart from Australia, American’s lapdog—is due in part at least to his inability to speak eloquently and persuasively on behalf of his cause, a task that calls for the rhetorical skills of a Churchill or a Kennedy, not the down-home bonhomie of a West Texas good ole boy.

Joseph Duemer takes it a step further when he writes:

Simple-minded linguistic determinism clearly won’t do—we do not understand our world(s) exclusively through the medium of a single language; otherwise, I would not have been able to enter into the spirit of Vietnam before I began learning Vietnamese. But—& this is important—I learned much more about Vietnam in my bones after I began studying the language. Linguistic determinism ignores the fact that all languages are part of Language & the Language is among the most basic things that makes us human. You can get a lot done with even rudimentary elements of a shared language: get a meal, fall in love, arrange the price for something…

I learned much more about Japan in my bones after I began studying the language. And I learned much more about myself. When you attempt to describe your thoughts and feelings in another tongue, when you try to overcome the limitations of your upbringing and socialization in order to connect with someone who shares only a few of your primary values, you begin to comprehend not just how language forms us but also how fragile and arbitrary is the nature of belief.

That points to what I find most troubling about George W. Bush: his absolute certainty based upon a breathtaking insularity. Bush would be an infinitely more capable and effective President if he’d taken the time and trouble to learn another language. Given his inadequate grasp of his first language, however, it’s unlikely he could have ever mastered a second.

Update. In the comments to this post, Dorothea Salo and Burningbird pointed out that George W. Bush speaks “not half bad” Spanish. Given that I speak “not half bad” Japanese, this revelation rather undercuts my argument. “His accent sucks,” wrote Dorothea, “but no more than that of my third-semester students, all of whom were quite comprehensible.” My (Japanese) accent doesn’t suck—despite my relatively weak vocabulary, on the telephone I am frequently mistaken for a native Japanese speaker because my Japanese “sounds natural.” Yet, crappy accent or no, the fact that GBW speaks halfway decent Spanish amazes me. At this point, late on a Tuesday night, I’m tempted to email Joseph Duemer and ask him what he thinks it might mean.

Other commenters noted that, with just a 50% voter turnout, only a quarter of the American population voted for George W. Bush. That doesn’t explain why his approval rating remains so high. Perhaps it means that, if voting was compulsory in the US, he would have been elected with a substantial majority.

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Tuesday 03 September 2002

Reimi says: “Thank you, Mark!”

Reimi, my new catIn honor of Reimi, my new cat, Mark Pilgrim started a weblog category for cat pictures.

When I just told Reimi, she said that she was honored to be the foundation cat in Mark’s cat pictures category, then asked if there was any kind of prize involving food. I said, not as far as I know, but gave her a handful of Whiskas Cravers Chicken Delights (The crunchy soft centered snack).

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Wednesday 04 September 2002

The inevitability of defeat

A couple of months ago I decided to take a break from the subject that has occupied most of my attention for the last few years: the Pacific War. On Monday night, the opening episodes of Band of Brothers aired on Australian TV. I taped them, watched the first hour last night, and will watch some more tonight when I finish this post.

This morning, as I left for the city, I plucked John Ray Skates’s The Invasion of Japan from the shelf and slipped it into my backpack. It’s time, I thought to myself, to return to the subject closest to my heart.

It was no coincidence. Watching the airborne soldiers train for the Normandy invasion had set me thinking about the two stage invasion planned for Kyushu in November 1945 (codenamed OLYMPIC) and the Tokyo/Yokohama area in March 1946 (CORONET). Skates writes:

The troop list for OLYMPIC called for fourteen divisions; CORONET called for twenty-five. The Allies assaulted the Normandy beaches with five divisions and dropped three airborne divisions behind the beaches to secure critical areas.

Forty divisions of American soldiers, thousands of land- and carrier-based airplanes, countless ships and carriers. Normandy seems almost trivial compared to the anticipated cost of invading the Japanese home islands. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff expected that the Japanese would mount an even more implacable resistance than that displayed on Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the other Pacific islands.

Tonight, eating dinner and reading Skates’s introduction, I was reminded of a story Donald Richie told about the Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu.

In 1943 Ozu, who had been drafted by the military to make propaganda films, was sent to Singapore. Showing the same lack of enthusiasm for the war effort as the writer Nagai Kafu, he spent his time rejecting the script suggestions of his army superiors and watching the huge stockpile of American films confiscated by the Japanese.

“The film that impressed Ozu most,” writes Donald Richie in his book on the director, “was Welles’s Citizen Kane

He looked at it again and again. It was apparently the technique of the film that most interested him, and according to Yoshimura [another Japanese director in Singapore at the time] he kept shaking his head in wonder over this effect or that. Thereafter, whenever asked his favorite foreign film, he always said Citizen Kane, though it is impossible to imagine a picture more antithetical to his own.

Poster for Walt Disney's FantasiaDuring the season of Ozu’s films Donald Richie curated for the Sydney Film Festival in 1994, he told an anecdote—not mentioned in his book—about Ozu’s Singapore sojourn.

According to Richie, another American film much admired by Ozu was Disney’s Fantasia, the animated feature with a score by Leopold Stokowski. Richie recalled Ozu’s saying that Fantasia took him totally by surprise, causing him to re-evaluate Japan’s chances of winning the war.

“Until then,” Ozu had said, “like most Japanese I’d accepted the government propaganda that our military forces were invincible and the defeats our armies had recently suffered were only minor setbacks. But when I saw Fantasia, I thought for the first time: If the Americans can make movies like this, then Japan is in deep trouble.”

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Thursday 05 September 2002

The problem of men’s magazines

Dorothea included an anecdote in her answer to my emailed question about the sickening grunch:

The GM’s girlfriend (while I’m reminiscing) once had to call the GM and the “fuckable” chap to task pretty sharply for passing a porn mag back and forth during the game. She was right; they were wrong. Even had the mag not been a porn mag, had the situation been free of all gender issues, RPG etiquette says it’s just rude not to pay attention to the game, especially if you’re GM. Even though she was right, and the “fuckable” chap put the mag away, the confrontation still felt uncomfortable. I didn’t have her courage; I would have let it go, and I am ashamed to say that I didn’t even back her up.

Only an insensitive boor would fail to understand that the GM and Mr Fuckable were doubly at fault: for not paying attention to the game and for looking at a porn magazine in mixed company.

I’m anticipating that some—not necessarily Dorothea, though I can’t be sure—would say that porn magazines are unacceptable in any company. That’s the nominal subject of this post.

[I’ll note in passing that I saw nothing accidental in the GM’s involvement in the “fuckable” conversation, his insistence that Dorothea’s game character be “comely,” and his interest in the porn mag at the expense of his responsibilities in supervising the game. In each case his behavior was clearly a form of masked aggression towards someone who profoundly threatened him.]

Anyway, Dorothea’s anecdote reminded me of an event at the barber shop, so on my way home tonight I dropped in for a haircut and asked Nick, the barber, if I could borrow “the letter.”

Anonymous letter to barbershop asking for the replacement of "sexist" magazinesFri 2/6/2000
Dear Hairdressers,
A request…
(But first, thank you for your fine service!)
Could you display a selection of reading materials in addition to (or preferably as a replacement to) the current magazines on offer.
These magazines are an offence to those who wish to avoid material which projects women as sex objects.
Alternatives would be greatly appreciated.
Sincerely,
A customer

Nick first showed me this letter a couple of years ago. I came into the shop one day to find him putting the finishing touches on a young woman’s haircut. She paid, walked out, and I took her place in the chair. I asked Nick whether many women had their hair cut by a barber rather than a women’s hairdresser. He said it was probably more common in Newtown (a trendy restaurant/shopping district, where he has his shop and I live) than other areas of Sydney. He estimated that on average he did one female haircut a day. Then he put his clippers on the bench, rummaged around in a drawer, and pulled out a folded piece of notepaper.

“Have a look at this,” he said to me, “someone pushed it under the door a few months ago. It was on the floor when I opened up one morning.”

I read the letter and asked him whom he thought had written it.

“One of the female customers,” he replied without hesitation. “Either that or a woman who’s been sitting in the shop waiting for her husband or boyfriend while his hair was being cut. It worried me for a while but I asked a few of my regulars and they all told me the magazines are great.”

The magazines are exactly what you’d expect to find in an Australian barbershop: Inside Sport, FHM, and Ralph.

Three Australian men's magazine covers: Inside Sport, FHM, & Ralph

“What do you think about the magazines,” Nick asked me. It was clear he valued my opinion.

“I think they’re perfectly fine,” I replied.

Far more fascinating, for me, than the letter was Nick’s assumption that a woman had written it. What do you think? I asked the other men in the shop: Tony (the other barber), the customer in Tony’s chair, and the two waiting customers, each of whom was reading a magazine. Everyone agreed that the letter could only have been written by a woman, probably one with a chip on her (feminist) shoulder.

Disbelief followed by derision met my suggestion that, in an area like Newtown—so close to Sydney University—there would be plenty of sensitive new age guys who might object to girly magazines. It was taken as given that looking at pictures of nearly-naked young women while waiting one’s turn at the barber is an inseparable component of the men’s haircutting experience—along with the tang of bay rum and the stroke of the razor on the nape of your neck.

“If she doesn’t like the men’s magazines, she should go to a women’s salon,” Tony said vehemently.

I found it difficult to disagree. If we assume a woman did write the letter (though I’m by no means convinced that this is so), then it seems unreasonable that she would take advantage of the lower cost of a haircut at Nick’s—US$6 compared to US$19+ at a ladies’ salon—and then complain about the reading material, which is provided specifically for the male clientele. Though perhaps my powers of reasoning were warped during my teenage years when the highlight of a monthly haircut was the chance to ogle the “artistic nudes” and swimsuit models in Pix, People, and Man magazines.

Cover of DNA, a gay magazineBut let’s return to the letter, whose author objects to the magazines because they “project women as sex objects.” And, although he or she expresses a desire that the girly mags be augmented by non-sexist magazines (“in addition to” and “alternatives”), surely the real project is to have the magazines replaced entirely—the implication being that the world would be a better place and relations between men and women greatly improved if men were given no opportunity to objectify women on the basis of their sexual appearance.

Although if our imaginary female letter writer was to have her hair cut at a women’s salon, she’d find no shortage of women’s magazines that “project women as sex objects.” And I guess I’m curious about her opinion of gay magazines that project men as sex objects. Should these be eliminated too?

Dorothea wrote:

Me, I want physical attractiveness completely off the table, and have all along.

I want to be ugly and not have it matter.

That’s what I want. Permission to be plain, even in my own eyes.

I take it from these unambiguous statements that Dorothea wants her relationships with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances—in real life or online—to take place free of any reference to her physical attractiveness, with the parallel desire that we all be more thoughtful, considerate, and aware in our public expression of potentially problematic gender issues. I could be mistaken and, if I am, I can trust Dorothea to set me straight. But nowhere in Dorothea’s posts do I find any attempt to impose what she wants for herself upon other women.

Still, here’s another question. Would it have been acceptable for the GM and Mr Fuckable to pass the porn magazine back and forth if it had been just the two of them, in one or the other’s living room, with no-one else around?

To be fair to our letter writer, his or her objection might only be to the magazines being in a public place (“an offence to those who wish to avoid…”). Perhaps the private consumption of girly magazines is acceptable.

I think it is. I fail to see any contradiction between supporting by my actions every woman’s right to social, political, and economic equality and sitting in a barber shop every few weeks looking at photographs of naked or nearly-naked young women in a magazine.

I accept that other people—men or women—may have ethical, religious, or ideological problems with such photographs and I respect their objections. The simple answer is, though, that they are not obliged to enter the barber shop, pick up the magazines, and read them. If the mere sight of a scantily-clad young woman on a magazine cover causes profound discomfort, I’d point to the multiplicity of more serious injustices that warrant their immediate attention.

On the other hand, I would be offended if I saw Inside Sport, FHM, or Ralph in amongst the magazines in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room. Or in the magazine rack at the local library. Or in the pile of newspapers and magazines in the pickup area at the local pizza shop.

I’m guess I’m saying that it all boils down to context. What might be acceptable in the barber shop isn’t necessarily tolerable elsewhere. Which is why I find myself agreeing with feminist protests about highly sexualized public advertising. But that can be the subject of another post.

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Friday 06 September 2002

Sony does it (yet) again

Sony DSC-F77 digital cameraAin’t capitalism wonderful? It looks like my search for a fast, carry-everywhere digital camera is over. Today DPReview published Sony’s announcement of the four megapixel ultra-compact fixed lens DSC-F77 and DSC-FX77 (Bluetooth) models.

Measuring 92.6 x 71.0 x 27.0 mm (3.65 x 2.8 x 1 in), the DSC-F77 has about the same dimensions as the credit card sized Casio Exilim EX-S2 that was previously at the top of my list (admittedly the Sony camera is significantly thicker but it’s still a light, pocketable camera).

More importantly, the combination of four megapixels and a Carl Zeiss lens ensures that the Sony’s image quality will eat that of the Casio, or the Minolta Dimage X.

Trust Sony. This news comes a couple of days after their announcement of the DSC-F717, an update of their DSC-F707 which is generally regarded as the best five megapixel prosumer digital camera. And they’ve promised a raft of new models between now and Christmas. Sometimes I wonder why the other manufacturers bother. (Though, if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be capitalism.)

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Saturday 07 September 2002

Taking up arms against evil

David Weinberger called AKMA’s attention to this article from the New York Times, which poses the theological challenge, “Where was God on September 11?”

Though the Peter Steinfels article is trite and superficial, AKMA’s response was simultaneously heartfelt and sophisticated:

It’s a question much older than last year, of course, and it seems awfully presumptuous for Christians to fret about 9/11 as though they had never heard of the Holocaust. Indeed, the effort to annihilate Judaiism bears an even more penetrating theological twist, since that persecution derived specifically from people’s identity as Israel, as God’s chosen people. Let’s not ask where God was last September until we have a decent response to the question of where God was at Buchenwald.

Which, of course, we won’t be able to do.

That’s why the wisest responses to catastrophic calamities take more of the texture of how we live than what words we say. Our words remain one-dimensional, our words are the same devices that clueless marketers use to whip us into frenzies of self-serving desire. Much as I respect the Rt. Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, he missed a trick when he lamented that “all I had was words.” He had his respectful silence to offer, too—and the energies and integrity and commitments with which he enacts that silence.

AKMA clearly privileges action over words—silence is action, he says, when enacted with passion and commitment. Perhaps as a result of my Catholic upbringing, in which theory and practice rarely coincided, I believe that actions weigh heavily, whereas words are as light and insubstantial as vapor. A person’s behavior speaks more eloquently than anything they might say.

Accordingly I can’t reconcile AKMA’s citing the Holocaust and Buchenwald with what he wrote in a subsequent post on the same subject:

It’s the mark of humans’ inclination to ascertain for themselves that some causes are so important that other people must die, whether those causes be personal or political or religious. That’s one of the cornerstone reasons that pacifists decline to take part in coercive violence: Cain’s attack on Abel, the murderous violence that makes someone else’s life pay the price of my envy or moral outrage or thirst for justice, arrogates to human judgment (however apparently well-justified) the prerogative that belongs to God alone.

The contradiction, as it appears to me, is that the surviving Jews in Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and the other death camps were not liberated by pacifists. Those few Jews left alive were set free by courageous men and women who had fought their way across Europe against determined German resistance—men and women who, whether they were motivated by moral outrage, a thirst for justice, the instinct for self-preservation, or a sense of loyalty to their comrades, took part in a sustained campaign of murderous and coercive violence that resulted in the defeat of the Nazis.

Were they wrong? Or mistaken? If so, what was the pacifist strategy for defeating Hitler, ending the occupation of Europe, and stopping the Holocaust? (And, by extension, for vanquishing the Japanese military forces and liberating the subjugated peoples of Asia.)

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Sunday 08 September 2002

The Tim Tams have landed

From Mahesh Shantaram comes news that his prize for making the 1000th comment on my weblog has finally arrived—happily on his 25th birthday. In a gracious thank-you message, Mahesh told me that my timing impressed him just as much as the Tim Tams:

Given the inherent inefficiencies and sheer unpredictability of all physical postal systems in the world, this is a remarkable feat. You’ve simply outdone my 1000th comment performance.

I have a feeling that Mahesh’s wife may be the main beneficiary of the Tim Tam prize since women consume considerably more than 50% of the Tim Tams produced by Arnotts in Australia. (Tim Tams advertising is directed exclusively towards female consumers.)

Nevertheless, I believe that in the long term Mahesh’s wife would have benefited more if he’d chosen the Dishmatique prize. Once a man falls under the spell of modern dishwashing technology, his loved ones need never again plunge their hands into sudsy water.

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The full dishwashing monty

AKMA reports from Beantown:

Good news for Jonathon: I grabbed snapshots of Si manipulating the Bottlematique. Another dishwasher for the Sudsy Studs of Cyberspace Calendar!

Does the imagination of our peripatetic pastor know no bounds? First he organizes the intellectual blogging elite by establishing the University of Blogaria; now he’s figured out how to commercialize the Blogarian male’s fascination with dishwashing implements. The Sudsy Studs of Cyberspace Calendar, on sale at a quality bookstore near you.

Twelve slots to fill, guys. Plenty of freshly scrubbed hunks to choose from: AKMA, Si, Jeff Cheney, Kevin Laurence, Eric Grevstad, Steve Himmer, myself… nominations are now officially declared open. I assume we’ll all have to appear nude, with sudsy substances deployed in the necessary places.

But David Salo will have to make a stronger commitment to dishwashing modernity than a dishcloth and couple of nylon scrubby pads if he has any expectation of appearing as Mr August.

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Monday 09 September 2002

Portraying Hitler

Salon founder and editor-in-chief David Talbot interviews the creative team—director/writer Menno Meyjes, actor John Cusack and producer Andras Hamori—responsible for a controversial new film about Adolf Hitler that has its premiere today at the Toronto Film Festival.

Max traces Hitler’s transformation from a scruffy war veteran and frustrated painter to a rising propagandist for German nationalism and anti-Semitism. We see the future leader of the Third Reich through the eyes of another scarred survivor of World War I, Max Rothman (Cusack), a prosperous, Jewish, avant-garde art dealer who believes that only brutally honest art can restore sanity to the world. Rothman is repelled by Hitler’s political ideas, but enters into an odd friendship with the bitter young corporal, out of a kinship born of the First World War trenches and a desire to save his comrade through the healing power of art.

Unsurprisingly, even the idea of the film has prompted outrage—from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (who “branded Max a cynical exploitation”) and the Jewish Defence League, which called for the film to be shelved by its distributor, Lion’s Gate:

Not only is the film in bad taste, it is also a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors and the entire Jewish community. There is no moral justification for making such a movie. To glorify or humanize Hitler makes a mockery of the 12 million — 6 million of them Jewish - victims of Hitler’s tyranny. There is nothing humorous or human about the most vicious, vile murderer in world history.

The JDL Web site subsequently posted an update, noting that they “have agreed to withhold judgment of Max until a copy of the script is obtained and an advanced screening is viewed.”

Reading Cusack, Meyjes, and Hamori’s defence of their film brought to mind Michael Frayn’s reply to those who had criticized him for allowing Werner Heisenberg to “make a case for himself” in Frayn’s play Copenhagen. In an article title ‘Copenhagen’ Revisited in the New York Review of Books (subscription required), Frayn wrote:

This seems to me a chastening reminder of the difficulties of representing a real person in fiction, but a profoundly sensible indication of the purpose in attempting it, which is surely to make explicit the ideas and feelings that never quite get expressed in the confusing onrush of life, and to bring out the underlying structure of events. I take it that the nineteenth-century German playwright Friedrich Hebbel was making a similar point when he uttered his great dictum (one that every playwright ought to have engraved over his desk): “In a good play everyone is right.” I assume he means by this not that the audience is invited to approve of everyone’s actions, but that everyone should be allowed the freedom and eloquence to make the most convincing case that he can for himself. Whether or not this is a universal rule of playwriting it must surely apply to this particular play, where a central argument is about our inability, in our observation of both the physical world and the mental, ever to escape from particular viewpoints…

I can imagine its being asked how far I think this principle should be carried. Do I believe that a fictitious Hitler should be accorded the same privileges? I can see all the problems of exhibiting Hitler on the stage, but I can’t see any point in attempting it at all if he is to be simply an effigy for ritual humiliation. Why should we be asked to endure a representation of his presence if he doesn’t offer us some understanding of what was going on inside his head from his own point of view? The audience can surely be trusted to draw its own moral conclusions.

That seems to be the point on which the argument hinges: can the audience be trusted to draw its own moral conclusions?

David Talbot writes:

While scores of biographies and history books have presented fully dimensional portraits of Hitler, no major movie until now has offered anything more than a cartoon picture of the 20th century’s apogee of evil: we have seen him on the screen only as a ranting and wild-eyed hysteric.

Opponents of the film say that any kind of nuance in Hitler’s character makes a mockery of the victims of his tyranny, a position stated most forcefully by Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, who argued that any attempt to explain Hitler’s motivations, to some degree exonerates his actions.

On the other hand, John Cusack—echoing Michael Frayn—says: “It’s easy to portray [Hitler] as a monster, it’s harder and more disturbing to show his humanity and how it became poisoned.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in George Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., a novella about Israeli Nazihunters who track down Hitler in the Amazonian jungle thirty years after the end of World War II. Critical attention has always focused on the electrifying last chapter where Hitler is allowed to speak, and for which Steiner (himself a Jew) was harshly criticized. Yet that criticism ignores the preceding chapters which painfully describe the impact of Hitler’s reign of terror on his victims. And, as an Amazon reviewer wrote: “Steiner has bravely put forth for all to contemplate, how seductive evil can be to those predisposed to hate.”

The alternative to the risks inherent in such a portrayal is a kind of one-dimensional work that raises no uncomfortable questions for the audience. There’s no need for introspection and self-examination when the blame can be conveniently dumped on a demented monster. The audience walks out of the theater two hours later, just as complacent as when they walked in. Yet Hitler had accomplices and sympathizers, not just in Germany, but all over the world. I wonder if putting all the responsibility onto him and a few henchmen doesn’t let everyone else off the hook…

In Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum suggests a way out of this impasse:

Not to resist all or any inquiry, not to resist thought, but to resist…the way explanation can become evasion or consolation, a way of making Hitler’s choice to do what he did less unbearable, less hateful to contemplate…. To resist making the kind of explanatory excuses for Hitler that permit him to escape, that grant him the posthumous victory of the last laugh.

It remains to be seen whether the makers of Max were faithful to Rosenbaum’s advice.

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Tuesday 10 September 2002

Crying

Michael Barrish, Oblivio:

My question this morning concerns crying. Is a certain amount of crying necessary to complete the process of mourning, and if so, does the crying need to be spread out over time or can you do it marathon-style?

Spread out over time; in many different places; alone, with friends, and with strangers.

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Thursday 12 September 2002

Hit me with your ***rhythm stick

This morning, when I realized that tomorrow is Friday the 13th of September, I remembered how I’d spent a Friday the 13th about twenty-five years ago.

I’d not long split up with a girlfriend who believed in all kinds of occult stuff: astrology, the tarot, numerology, rune stones, and… biorhythms. She’d given me an electronic Biorhythm Calculator for my birthday so, when I realized that the following Friday would fall on the 13th, I retrieved it from a box of stuff I was about to throw out and used it to calculate my biorhythm for that day. Disaster! It was a Triple Low day: my physical, emotional, and intellectual cycles would all hit their lowest point on Friday the 13th.

Unwilling to take any chances, I stocked up on food and alcohol on the Thursday, and spent Friday the 13th alone at home reading John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

It actually turned out to a pleasurable day. I didn’t answer the phone. I didn’t have a computer so I wasn’t tempted to go online (actually there wasn’t any “online” in those days, outside of universities). I ate when I was hungry, read my book, and napped occasionally. I guess it would have been nice to have shared the day with someone but I’d only just broken up with Ms Occult. In any case, I would have been too anxious about fooling around in my weakened physical and emotional state. And I had no desire to tempt fate, for even though Sean Cunningham’s eponymous movie had yet to be made, I’d seen plenty of Italian horror films in which young lovers were chopped up by an axe murderer.

Tonight, out of curiosity, I checked my chart for tomorrow at DailyBiorhythm.com. Unfortunately, it’s almost a Triple Low day too. My emotional and intellectual cycles are near rock bottom and—at -87%—I’m not in great physical shape either.

My Biorhythm chart for Friday, September 13, 2002

Believe it or not, I’ve felt kind of listless all week, so perhaps there’s something to it after all.

It might best, then, to schedule the transition to Movable Type 2.21 and MySQL at my new web hosting service for a week when my intellectual and emotional capacities are at a peak. I’ll discuss this with Allan Moult since we’re about to embark on a series called A Beginner’s Guide to MT, MySQL, and PHP. If it turns out that Allan believes in biorhythms, then I think we may be in trouble—it’s unlikely we’d be able to get both our cycles in synch until some time next year.

But I wouldn’t want anyone to think I really take it seriously. After all, I don’t intend to stay in all day tomorrow reading a spy novel. Though if I don’t post to the weblog tomorrow night or on Saturday, you’ll know something’s happened.

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Saturday 14 September 2002

The efficacy of silence

On September 11, Jeff Ward wrote:

I never bought into the idea that surrendering your voice was a way to commemorate an inauspicious anniversary. I think that’s a cop-out. I’ve never understood the “moment of silence” thing at all. It seems to me that the way to celebrate people is to shout, dance, and be involved— not withdraw into a corner. The best way to keep going is not stopping.

Loren Webster commented:

I think some of us were simply opting out of all the “hype,” Jeff.

As I look around I see what Yossarian saw in Catch-22, “When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent moral impulse and every human tragedy.”

I wonder why the television stations didn’t take out the ads today. I wonder why some politicians were tying this to the invasion of Iraq.

Jeff replied:

….the majority of the noise on the airwaves is as you say, geared towards hyping and justifying war. I understand the gesture of silence in protest of that, but silence never promotes much of anything except silence. I don’t see many good things coming out of silence.

I was with Loren in the “some of us [are] simply opting out of the hype” group. I’d taken my cue from AKMA, when he wrote about respectful silence being worth something, assuming it is enacted with energy, integrity, and commitment.

Though, in retrospect, I wonder if Jeff wasn’t right. He wrote briefly about attending a lecture by “renowned Blake scholar Joe Viscomi” as a way of refusing “to support the rebirth of American imperialism under the guise of celebrating such a heinous crime.”

Yet I chose silence. Partly because I did not want (in Mark Pilgrim’s words) to “add to the cacophony.” Partly because what was on my mind would have been, as the Japanese say, basho-gara wakimaezu, not in keeping with the occasion. God knows there’s a desperate need to counteract the mawkish drivel that was written on September 11, but September 11 was not the day to do it.

On Wednesday night, after I’d written my brief post, I watched Tokyo Story (for the fifteenth or twentieth time). Half a minute of Ozu’s unsentimental study of the disintegration of the postwar Japanese family offers a deeper understanding of humanity and the difficulties of living than all the hours of commemorative “9/11” programming laid end to end.

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Bottlematique?

Close up of BottlematiqueAKMA’s son Si has auditioned for the forthcoming Sudsy Studs of Cyberspace calendar by demonstrating an “anonymous bottle-cleansing device” that AKMA has christened—“for no good reason,” he says (somewhat disingenuously)—the “Bottlematique.”

When AKMA first mentioned the Bottlematique, I had no problem with the name; now that I’ve seen the photographs, I have some doubts. As the acknowledged international authority on the Dishmatique, I’ve always assumed that the “matique” suffix connotes automating the manual dishwashing process in some way—most obviously by dispensing detergent from a hollow handle (see also Li’l Scrubber).

AKMA’s and Si’s “Bottlematique” appears to offer no such automating potential. On the other hand, AKMA might argue that the “matique” suffix may be ironically conferred on any unusual dishwashing device—so perhaps he’s using “Bottlematique” in this post-modernist or post-structuralist sense. Despite my ancestry, I have little enthusiasm for French theory. Rather, my theoretical allegience lies squarely with Adorno and the Frankfurt School.

If it wasn’t late on Saturday night and I wasn’t itching to watch Kate Winslett in Enigma, I’d spend some time searching for an apposite quotation from Adorno’s Minima Moralia. I guess that means that Bottlematique it is. (Though Si wouldn’t even be allowed to buy the calendar I had in mind, let alone appear in it.)

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Sunday 15 September 2002

Can I have Michael call you back?

Michael Barrish was looking for an apartment. When he found one, the landlord required proof that he makes and has made considerably more money than he does and has. That he can afford the apartment and is a model tenant did not impress the landlord. It occurred to Michael Barrish that:

… if you were a “bad” person, a person who is willing under certain unfortunate circumstances to do “bad” things, you might decide to create bogus tax documents, using the handy downloadable forms provided by the IRS.

If you were a Japanese person, you would contact an aribai-ya (a professional alibi service).

The day before the Oblivio post appeared, the Mainichi Daily News WaiWai page featured a Ryann Connell item about aribai-ya (or alibiya) titled Sex, lies and alibis. WaiWai, which summarizes articles from Japan’s scandal-mongering “newsmagazines,” runs an alibiya story every couple of years. In this latest one, a girl named “Naoko” comes to Tokyo from the countryside to work in the pink trade. Once she’s saved enough money to “borrow” (i.e. rent) an apartment, she finds that Tokyo landlords regard soapland employees with the same suspicion that New York landlords show towards freelance Web developers.

A coworker suggested that Naoko contact an alibiya:

I called them immediately. They told me I work for an import company located in Shibuya and gave me a phone number. Of course, all the information was a total lie. Just in case, I got them to make me some company ID and tax withholding slips. It was perfect. My landlord thought I was just an average office worker and I had no problems borrowing an apartment.

According to the original Shukan Taishu article, 80% of the alibiya’s business comes from female sex workers having difficulty renting an apartment.

For three months worth of fake pay slips, it costs only 10,000 yen a sheet. A tax withholding slip goes for 13,000 yen. Answering phone calls while pretending to be an employee of a nonexistent company where the client claims to work is only 8,000 yen for two months. Acting as a post office box service sets back the client just 5,000 yen a month.

I suspect that Michael Barrish would find these rates more than reasonable: US$82 for the fake pay slips, $107 for the tax withholding slip, and just $66 for two months of answering the phone in the name of one’s nonexistent employer. And a lot less trouble than borrowing a typewriter to fill in the downloaded 1099s or W2s and having a friend prepare a bogus accountant’s income estimate on a letterhead you’ve had to design. (Trust the Japanese to turn George Constanza’s mythical import/export company, Vanderlay Industries, into a thriving commercial reality.)

As well as imaginary receptionists and bosses, alibiya can also supply corporeal “wedding guests,” “funeral mourners,” or the “professor” who supervised your Ph.D. studies at a prestigious university. A 1996 WaiWai story, reprinted in the anthology Tokyo Confidential, told of a Setagaya alibiya with 500 part-timers on its books: “people with theatrical ambitions, or office ladies who studied drama in college, or members of amateur theatrical troupes.”

The fee depends on the kinds of guests required—office workers, corporate executives, or refined aristocrats—but generally starts at ¥30,000 (US$246) per guest. Coincidentally or not, that’s what I’ve offered as a cash gift at each of the Japanese weddings I’ve attended, ¥30,000 being the going rate for a non-relative. It’s an intriguing reversal that the bride and groom have to pay the alibiya the same fee per guest that they would normally receive from real friends and work colleagues.

Still, who’d want to put a price on a happy wedding?

“I was kicked out of home and there was no way my parents or any relatives would turn up for my wedding,” sex shop worker Ritsuko, as we’ll call her, tells Shukan Taishu. “But my boyfriend’s family is really traditional, so they’d be mad if they knew my family regarded me as a pariah. The alibiya gathered a group of people who acted as though they were my parents and relatives. The guy acting as though he were my dad gave a really moving speech. My in-laws were so delighted, they started crying tears of joy.”

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Monday 16 September 2002

A metaphysical brothel for emotions

Joseph Duemer wrote:

Ad captandum: I finally figured out what it is about the warbloggers—like this one, who is typical: they are sentimentalists. The problem with sentimentality is that it obscures reality in a haze of ill-defined & manipulative feeling. And the Rottweiler’s sentimentality is no less sentimental because it is violent & vulgar. [cf warblogger watch]

I immediately recalled a Salon review of two biographies of film director John Ford in which Allen Barra asked: “How can an intelligent person be expected to react to the thick, rich blend of sentimentality, brutality, chauvinism and homilies in Ford’s films… without cringing just a little?”

And what are warblogs if not a thick blend of sentimentality, brutality, chauvinism and homilies? In Koestler’s phrase, a “metaphysical brothel for emotions.” Later in the review, Barra cites an anecdote that reveals much about Ford and the warblogging personality:

Both Eyman and McBride [Ford biographers] relate the story of a character actor named Frank Baker who came to Ford begging for money when his wife was in the hospital; Ford screamed at Baker, publicly humiliating him, and then punched him. Then he sent a man to see that Baker’s hospital bills were taken care of, proving once again that sentimentality is often found on the other side of the same counterfeit coin as brutality.

It turns out that Barra was paraphrasing Carl Jung, whose aphorism—Sentimentality is a superstructure covering brutality—Joseph later added, before pointing to his “long pissing contest with the warblogging community” (in the comments on this post at Warblogger Watch).

I spent a dispiriting twenty minutes reading the 73 comments. What struck me most forcefully was that Joseph Duemer’s opponents, who argued in favor of an invasion of Iraq (with or without UN sanction) failed to comprehend the meaning of sentimentality, even after Joseph carefully defined it for them:

Sentimentality is the substitution of emotion for intelligence; sentimentality requires of the reader assent to heightened feelings not legitimated by the matter at hand; sentimentality seeks to manipulate the reader’s emotional response by calls to conventional wisdom or attitudes; sentimentality seeks approval by reference to the vast warm blanket of majority opinion; sentimentality never, ever risks the disapproval of any member of its intended audience.

And the aesthetic expression of sentimentality is kitsch, as Kundera explains in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.

The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love…

In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden beneath it.

“Children running on the grass,” “the motherland betrayed,” “husbands kissing their wives goodbye”—this is the emotional clip art with which the warbloggers attempt to mask the essential brutality of their cries for war. What’s entirely missing from their rhetoric is the compassion with which, as I’ve argued before, every great soldier balances a necessary ruthlessness.

To be sure, Saddam Hussein is an odious tyrant. But so are dozens of other leaders whose corrupt governments have the direct support of or have been placed in power by the United States. It’s this selective morality—which the warbloggers trick out as “moral clarity”—that needs to be questioned. Instead a morality of convenience is being endorsed in a heady rush of sentimental claptrap.

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Tuesday 17 September 2002

Happy families

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Happy Families card game: Mr Bones the Butcher, his wife, son, and daughter

Happy Families is the British version of Go Fish, played with a pack of 44 cards depicting the father, mother, son, and daughter of eleven families (Bun the Baker, Hose the Fireman, Bones the Butcher, Tape the Tailor, and so on). As in Go Fish, the goal is to collect complete families by asking another player for a particular card.

Even at the age of ten, playing the game with my mother and father, the happy family seemed such an absurd notion, completely at odds with the reality of my own family and the families of my schoolfriends, in which happiness was counterbalanced with unspoken grief, frustration, anger, tension, and lies.

Given the enormous amount of social and cultural energy devoted to supporting the charade of the seamlessly happy family, I was hardly surprised to read that Mike Golby had:

received two e-mails from overseas demanding my blog’s closure. The e-mails resulted from my publishing, in haste and unthinkingly, the name of a family member when relating events surrounding my wife’s rape in 1999.

Mike corrected the error and apologized, but apparently the two relatives continue to insist that he stop blogging. In an email to a range of people (presumably on his blogroll), Mike framed a request for comment and support in terms of “freedom of speech.” At the risk of offending Mike and anyone else, I find “freedom of speech” to be almost as exhausted and discredited a term as “patriotism.”

In free societies such as those in which most bloggers live, speech is subject to a range of constraints: the laws dealing with libel, slander, and hate speech; the imperatives of political correctness; and, perhaps most properly, the tact and compassion essential for the smooth running of a community. So, Mike, if you’re looking for support on the basis of “free speech,” I’m afraid I can’t accommodate you.

Because there’s a more important issue at stake for me than “free speech.” Something I might describe as “quality of speech.” Even relatively repressive societies frequently exempt—to varying degrees—artists from many of the restrictions placed on “normal” citizens. In return for a greater degree of intellectual, social, and sexual freedom, artists create works that reflect, criticize, or (most commonly) celebrate the ideologies underpinning the society.

Because the family is regarded as the building block of most societies, a considerable degree of cultural capital is expended in creating artistic works that reinforce and amplify the myth of the happy family. I would characterize most, though not all, of these works as sentimental—using the word in a perjorative sense. But in a comment on my previous post, Loren Webster suggested that “99% of Americans” look favorably on the term:

“Sentimental” has positive connotations, not negative ones. We associate it with things we know are not necessarily true but things we would love to believe.

Things like Santa Claus, things like joyous Thanksgiving reunions with loved ones, even if we only love them at a distance, are considered “sentimental.” Even when we consciously know these things are not entirely true, we would like to believe them and see nothing wrong in believing in them.

I was astonished when I first read Loren’s comment but, on reflection, why should I be? The evidence for Loren’s assertion is in my face every time I turn on commercial television. It’s only a minority who wants to see, in Brecht’s phrase, how things really are.

My guess is that, for Mike Golby’s relatives, the real transgression was not that he named a family member but that his weblog is, among many other admirable things, an uncompromising assault on the myth of the decorous happy family.

Dorothea Salo appears to agree. Responding to Mike’s plea for support and advice, she wrote:

Some people speak about themselves and their families in clichés and polite fictions for many of the same reasons corporations speak in empty, sonorous PR, not least among them desperate fear of the truth. Some people, submerged in the family fictions, lose their real voices in part or wholly…

Blogging threatens such families for the same reasons it threatens PR-dependent corporations. It threatens the fiction, the public façade of perfection, the private walls around anger and pain and disagreement and error.

The “public” nature of blogging is only an excuse, really, for those who want the façades maintained. The same fury arises when a family member obtains private therapy, joins AA or Al-Anon (two organizations heavily invested in the privacy of their members), or even just talks to a friend. Public or private is not the issue; the issue is talking truthfully, or writing truthfully, at all. To anyone.

I myself believe the fictions need to be deconstructed, the façades ripped away from what lies beneath. Talk about things that hurt—this hurts beyond belief. Still needs to be done.

It hurts to write and it hurts to read. Many of Mike’s posts about his wife and family are almost unbearably painful, which is why they are so extraordinary and so valuable. Not that I don’t feel a degree of sympathy for the relatives who’ve been upset by what he’s written. That’s what happens, though, when you have an artist in the family.

There are all kinds of recommended strategies—particularly for writers—by which you can avoid offending family members who’ve been unwillingly or unknowingly coopted into one’s fictions: blend personality traits from three family members into a single character; change the relative’s hair color, give them freckles and a big nose; double their age and change their sex.

None of those strategies work for a confessional artist like Mike Golby. We all get dealt good and bad cards in the great game of life and, sometimes, the artist in the family is one of life’s bad cards. Mike’s relatives are making more of it than that, for reasons Dorothea and I have guessed at. We’ve both chosen to take Mike’s side because we value (in Dorothea’s beautiful phrase) his “eloquent personal transparency” at the expense of their psychic discomfort.

This is why it’s so much more than an issue of free speech. Mostly, when we talk about free speech, we are concerned with a person’s right to express what they believe is the truth, with the emphasis on the content of that expression. In the case of Mike Golby’s weblog, the form of the expression is equally important. Mike’s words, his literary style, and the weblog form itself coalesce into a aesthetic work that is the only necessary proof of his good faith.

Mike talks about it—following David Weinberger—in terms of “writing himself into existence.” But he’s really chasing something far more ambitious: writing a family—happy and unhappy by turns—into existence. And, by extension, writing all of us into existence, surely the function of any serious work of art. You have to pay attention though, to catch the glimpses of intense, authentic happiness, rather like life itself.

I’m not suggesting that happy families are impossible, or even unusual. Rather I’m protesting a pervasive myth based on what Dorothea Salo calls “clichés and polite fictions.” Nor am I saying there’s no room at all for sentimental depictions of the happy family but we live in cultures that—proportionately—offer hardly anything else: not just things that are “not entirely true” but things that are manifestly false. It’s this preponderance of family kitsch that makes a weblog like Mike Golby’s so precious. In Blogaria, most everybody aspires to be a journalist. Artists are distressingly rare.

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An abundance of -matiqueity

AKMA conceived the term “-matiqueity” while simultaneously agreeing with my theory that its essence lies in the device’s “automating the manual dishwashing process in some way—most obviously by dispensing detergent from a hollow handle.”

This breakthrough in the semantics of dishwashing seems to have precipitated the discovery of two more devices, one of which extends the power of matique technology outside the kitchen.

Kevin Laurence reports:

Just when I thought the UK might be losing ground in the washing gadget wars, my wife spotted the Easy-Do Bathmatique in our local hardware store (could the Sudsy Studs Calendar have been her motivation?).

Easy-Do Bathmatique, courtesy of Kevin LaurenceFor the sake of your marriage, Kevin, let’s rather hope that she was motivated by a selfless desire to raise her husband’s matique-cred.

Kevin is correct in assuming that, by virtue of its being fillable, the Bathmatique qualifies as a true “matique”. Intriguingly, as well as coming in “at least two colours,” the Bathmatique can be switched “on and off by rotating the sponge head by 45 degrees.” (From the product packaging, it looks like the sponge head might also be topped with a non-abrasive scourer.) I can only assume that the ON/OFF switching controls the detergent flow. Fillable, switchable, available in two colors, designed to clean an entire bathroom—it would appear that, with the Bathmatique, the UK has returned to the forefront of matique technology. Only fitting, many would say, since my own Dishmatiques are proudly labelled “Made in England.”

As we await Kevin’s photographs of the Bathmatique in action (preferably in the bathroom and the kitchen), Steve Himmer brings news of an American matique device called the Quickie. Steve describes it as “a hollow, transparent plastic handle with a screw-cap at one end and a sponge at the other, perpendicular to the soap-filled shaft.”

Gadzooks, indeed. The hollow handle, screw-cap, and sponge immediately qualify the Quickie as a genuine matique product. But it’s the perpendicular relationship of sponge to handle that’s really exciting: imagine the force you could apply to a dirty surface by pushing perpendicularly instead of pressing laterally. Steve has also promised photographs of the Quickie. My dream of selling dishwashing kits online is looking more and more practicable.

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Thursday 19 September 2002

A common chord

I’d always wondered why I’ve never met a Canadian I didn’t like—until I read this Globe and Mail article by Jeffrey Simpson, titled Australia: Canada’s secret alter ego. The last paragraph makes clear our commonality:

Take two forbidding pieces of geography, lightly populate them, give them colonial histories and turn them into federations, factor in an underprivileged native population, attract immigrants from around the globe, insist that they play the role of middle powers in the world — and you have two countries where the details may be different but the essence is the same.

All that’s lacking in this summary—though Simpson does mention it earlier in his article—is our complex, ambivalent attitude towards the United States.

(Link via wood s lot)

Update. Now comes news that Mark Woods is joining Stavros in hiatus. What’s going on? Blogging needs all the Canadians it can get! Wait a minute. The WonderChicken’s page title says: “Hiatus? What hiatus?” Welcome back, Stav. Come back soon, Mark.

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Friday 20 September 2002

Beauty and sadness

Despite the impression I may have given, I’m not entirely immune to sentimental things. Twenty years ago, when I was married, my wife and I went to see An Officer and a Gentleman. Midway through the utterly improbable ending—when Zac Mayo graduates from officer training and strides into the paper mill to rescue Paula Pokrifki from a life of drudgery, with Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes belting out Up Where We Belong—I turned to my wife with tears streaming down my face and said: “I don’t care if it’s sentimental bullshit, sometimes that’s just what we need.”

So I was fine with Loren Webster’s disagreeing with my post in support of Mike Golby that the role of art is to “show how things really are,” to strip away sentimentality. Loren wrote:

revealing the “truth” in this sense is only one aspect of art. An equally important role is to show what life “can be,” to hold up models of what we want our lives to become…

I would argue that both are real, and both are the domain of the true artist. The artist does not have to choose one or the other to be an “artist,” though contemporary art critics certainly seem to have come down on the side of angst and despair. Emphasizing one at the expense of the other, though, seems to be a distortion of reality, a distortion of truth, whatever that might be.

He’s right. Yet though I have no difficulty laughing or kidding around, I do have a deep-seated preference for art suffused with sadness. Loren’s positive view of sentimentality springs partly from his experience of receiving some precious gifts as a child, despite his family’s being “poor.” My distaste for sentimentality was formed in childhood too, from observing the gap between the words I was told and the reality I experienced. I think that’s why I associate bleakness with “how things really are.”

It’s why I adore the photographs of Walker Evans and Robert Frank and (some would say, unfairly) dismiss Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson as sentimental hacks. And why I never missed an episode of Seinfeld, whereas other sitcoms hardly interested me at all. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were simultaneously real and funny, because the humor was based upon an essentially pessimistic view of human nature.

So it’s sentimental perfection that I object to (see Adams and Cartier-Bresson), as Loren picked up on in his following post:

Unfortunately, Jonathon is also right that the “perfect” family is probably over represented on the web, while there is far too little exposure to those who are struggling to transcend their background. As an ex-teacher and ex-caseworker, I know that far too many people are caught up merely trying to survive and have neither the desire nor the ability to express the pain that they are feeling publicly. As a result, they are often stereotyped and shoved aside while less-deserving, but more vocal, “chosen” people try to design the world to fit their needs and punish those who don’t fit in.

Because Mike Golby has the desire, the ability, and the courage to express publicly the pain he is feeling, his writing must inevitably be unsentimental. So although I can see some stylistic similarities, I was surprised that Loren identified Mike as the “Kerouac” of blogging, since Kerouac has always seemed a deeply sentimental writer to me. (I need to spend some time re-reading Loren’s Kerouac essays.)

Ultimately, though, I prefer unsentimental art because I find it more engaging. I agree with the sculptor Louise Bourgeois when she said: “Happy people have no stories.”

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Saturday 21 September 2002

Lick this, Candidia

What’s with Candidia Cruickshanks?

It amuses me to read Blog-Doctors of the Body Politic who diagnose but neither cure nor create. They are voyeurs who criticize as clichés the instrumentalities of Power, from whose use they are precluded by their own good taste.

She’s talking about the attack Joe Duemer and I mounted against sentimental kitsch:

Of course Brands, Brand Culture, Patriotism Speeches, are Free Market Kitsch. I am not a cultural elitist. I give my Fellow Consumers what they understand: clichés, CyberSex, Hollywood Epics, and in R/T Wars of Good against Evil. A Metaphysical Brothel for the Emotions? Do you have any idea how profitable Wealth Bondage is? You say my boots are in bad taste. Then why are they covered in spit? Who licks your boots, little men?

I’m surprised that a self-described Social Venture Entrepreneur and Philanthropist is unable to distinguish between theory and practice. I’m amazed Candidia does not recognize that embittered anti-sentimentalists like Joe and myself are ideally qualified to run a high-grossing Wealth Bondage franchise in any major city in the world. I’m flabbergasted that Candidia uses so crass an indicator as spittle-encrusted boots to evaluate one’s prowess as a Teacher, Jester, Moralist, and Disciplinarian.

Stop fantasizing about the Cellular Hydrating Serum, Candidia, and use the spit off your boots. Talk to The Tutor and Minim about giving us a territory. Say, Hanoi or Tokyo… or both. Cut us a deal. We’ll teach you a thing or two about profitability.

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Sunday 22 September 2002

In the realm of no senses

Loren Webster and Jeff Ward continue the discussion on sentimentality, as Joe Duemer points to the superb analysis of the sentimentalist warblogger narrative at Liberal Arts Mafia.

Since I hardly disagree with either Loren’s or Jeff’s positions, perhaps this argument is taking place along two parallel paths. Whereas Joe pointed out—and I picked up on—the connection between sentimentality and brutality in warblogging posts, Loren and Jeff argued for sentimentality as a valid human response to lived experience (Jeff would use sentiment as a synonym for feeling). But Joe and I are criticizing (as Jeff acknowledged) an excess of unreflective feeling, not feeling per se.

And if Loren found himself “a little surprised by [his] own actions in defending the word” and by being labeled a “sentimentalist,” I can only wonder at the irony of my newfound guise as the Scrooge of Blogaria, denigrator of human feeling and thoroughly unsentimental modernist.

Fifteen years ago I quit a well-paid, tenured, enjoyable position as a lecturer in photography in a university art school because I no longer had the energy or inclination to argue with the ideologues who had taken control. Nowadays I rarely think about that unhappy period of my life but Mark Krupnick’s essay Why Are English Departments Still Fighting the Culture Wars? brought it back in a rush:

The usual explanation for the divisiveness in English is twofold. First, starting with the invasion of French poststructuralism in the 1960s, advanced literary interpretation changed from being formalist in method and traditionalist in ideology to a brand of French theory whose major distinguishing characteristic seemed to be that it required you to spend more time reading the theorists than reading the canonical texts of Western literature. The second major explanation for the culture wars is that they basically have been about politics, set off when ’60s radicals took their battles from the streets into university departments.

But the culture wars have petered out in many departments. Why so much less so in English? I suggest that the bitterness of the canon wars, and so much else in academic literary studies, has had a great deal to do with the kind of people who become English professors.

“Formalist in method and traditionalist in ideology” perfectly describes the way I chose to teach photography. In first year it’s common for photo students to try all kinds of wacky “techniques” as they regurgitate every hackneyed picture they’ve ever seen. But, at the beginning of second year, they frequently ask a crucial question: what should I photograph?

My reply was always the same: “Photograph what you love or what you hate, what inspires or terrifies you, what you yearn for or seek to understand.” And I would quote Lisette Model’s famous dictum:

The camera is an instrument of detection.. we photograph what we know and what we don’t know… when I point my camera at something I am asking a question and the photograph is sometimes an answer… In other words, I am not trying to prove anything. I am the one who is getting the lesson.

Not surprisingly this was anathema to the theorists and I was frequently attacked for holding an idealist or transcendentalist position. Yet my only concern was that photography students use their cameras to engage their world with passion and commitment—for me, photography was a primarily a method for exploring ideas and emotions.

Krupnick argues that “the role of moral tutor in the United States has fallen to professors of English nearly as much as to the clergy” and I may well have (unconsciously) taken on that role, a photographic variant of Krupnick’s “archetypal English-department academic,” who,

in contrast to academics in other fields, is involved in a quest to know himself or herself and arrive at a more intimate relationship with the good, the true, and the real. So English professors tend to experience alternative approaches to the truth as they see it as a personal affront, and cause for counterattack. The personal truly is political.

Rather, I saw the postmodernist position not as a personal affront but as rigid, unimaginative, and inappropriate for young students with a relatively constrained view of what could be possible in life and in art. Even had I wanted to, there was no point in staging a counterattack. I knew I was outnumbered when one of my brightest students recounted how Dr So-and-So from the Art Theory Department had told her that feelings were a bourgeois illusion, that she should work to embed in her photographs references to key theorists. I resigned and started working in multimedia and then Web development, not unlike Mark Krupnick, who jumped ship to teach religious studies. Again he could be writing about what happened in the art school:

The baby boomers have prevailed. Now there are fewer clashes within cutting-edge English departments, because nearly everyone is a theorist or cultural-studies specialist. The victors don’t always present a pretty picture. Baby-boom and younger academics in English often project a sanctimony about their secular political-cultural convictions that I never see when my Divinity School colleagues touch on their religious beliefs. Their moralism strikes me as being at odds with their obsession with intradepartmental power plays and their rapt attention to new fashions in criticism and whatever will advance their careers.

It’s a story in which there are no winners, only losers. The students lost most of all.

Later.

Though I started out with Jeff’s and Loren’s sentimentality posts in the back of my mind, the teaching experience pushed to the foreground. Not necessarily a bad thing, given their backgrounds and interest in literature. I’m intensely curious to see what Loren, Jeff, and Joe think of Mark Krupnick’s essay.

But I still want to address Jeff Ward’s two long posts about sentiment, feeling, and sentimentality. I’m aware of how deeply my own attitudes have been formed by my fascination with Japanese culture and aesthetics, most specifically Motoori Norinaga’s conception of mono no aware, which roughly corresponds to lacrimae rerum, the pathos of things (or in Nancy S. Dye’s phrase: “the fragility and suffering that define being human”).

I’ve been wanting to write about mono no aware for a while. Now I have a good reason to make a start.

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Monday 23 September 2002

That was a Wonderful Remark

I love to fossick in people’s archives. Trawling through Mark Pilgrim’s posts on RSS, I stumbled on a paragraph that made me pause, consider, and realize that at last I’ve returned to what Don Juan called “the path with heart.”

As I write this, the year is 2000, and the Internet is a battleground of intellectual property disputes. Some people would like you to believe that, without proper financial incentives, music, literature, and computer software would disappear. After all, who would make music if they can’t make money on it? Who would write? Who would program? I know the answer. The answer is that musicians will make music, not because they can make money, but because musicians are the people who can’t not make music. Writers will write because they can’t not write. I’ve been programming for 16 years, writing free software for 8. I can’t imagine not doing this. If you can imagine yourself not doing what you’re doing, do something else. Do whatever it is that you can’t not do.

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Tuesday 24 September 2002

Facing the truth about us

Of the articles Malcolm Gladwell writes for the New Yorker my favorites are always those in which he takes a seemingly prosaic aspect of daily life and reveals its mysteries. For example:

  • Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg (“In the late nineteen-sixties, a Harvard social psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in an effort to find an answer to what is known as the small-world problem, though it could also be called the Lois Weisberg problem. It is this: How are human beings connected? Do we belong to separate worlds, operating simultaneously but autonomously, so that the links between any two people, anywhere in the world, are few and distant? Or are we all bound up together in a grand, interlocking web?”)
  • Listening to Khakis (“It’s almost as if the Dockers ads weren’t primarily concerned with clothes at all—and in fact that’s exactly what Levi’s intended. What the company had discovered, in its research, was that baby-boomer men felt that the chief thing missing from their lives was male friendship. Caught between the demands of the families that many of them had started in the eighties and career considerations that had grown more onerous, they felt they had lost touch with other men.”)
  • The Science of the Sleeper (“In the book business, as in the movie business, there are two kinds of hits: sleepers and blockbusters… Sleepers come to your attention by a slow, serendipitous path: a friend who runs into a friend who sets up the interview that just happens to be heard by a guy married to a bookseller. Sleepers tend to emerge from the world of independent bookstores, because independent bookstores are the kinds of places where readers go to ask the question that launches all sleeper hits: Can you recommend a book to me?”)

Since Gladwell owns the copyright on each of the articles he writes for the New Yorker, a month or so after an article appears in the magazine he publishes it on his Web site. I’m not sure how he sees giving away his content. Perhaps he regards it as a brand-building exercise, although I doubt it. He already has an enviable reputation. It’s more likely that he thinks: I’ve already been paid handsomely—through the fun of research, the pleasure/pain of writing, the check from the magazine, the admiration of my peers, and the knowledge that I’ve been read by tens of thousands of discriminating readers—I can afford to give this away.

His latest article, The Naked Face, explains the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, who established that facial expressions were “the universal products of evolution”:

Paul Ekman got his start in the face-reading business because of a man named Silvan Tomkins, and Silvan Tomkins may have been the best face reader there ever was. Tomkins was from Philadelphia, the son of a dentist from Russia… During the Depression, in the midst of his doctoral studies at Harvard, he worked as a handicapper for a horse-racing syndicate, and was so successful that he lived lavishly on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At the track, where he sat in the stands for hours, staring at the horses through binoculars, he was known as the Professor. “He had a system for predicting how a horse would do based on what horse was on either side of him, based on their emotional relationship,” Ekman said. If a male horse, for instance, had lost to a mare in his first or second year, he would be ruined if he went to the gate with a mare next to him in the lineup. (Or something like that—no one really knew for certain.) Tomkins felt that emotion was the code to life, and that with enough attention to particulars the code could be cracked. He thought this about the horses, and, more important, he thought this about the human face.

What a wonderful Runyonesque character. The article is filled with them. As you read, you may want to refer to this page that illustrates the action units that make up Ekman’s FACS - Facial Action Coding System.

I suppose this post is a hymn of admiration for Malcolm Gladwell. I admire his curiosity, his tenacity, his gifts as a writer, and his generosity. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, his work points to a direction that bloggers might fruitfully follow.

On reflection, I also realized that I enjoyed reading The Naked Face because it comes down so strongly on the side of nature in the nature vs. nurture debate. Although I accept that we are social beings, I also believe that in recent years our “animal” behavior has been deliberately downplayed by the social engineeers who are convinced that human beings are—if subjected to the appropriate influences—perfectible. The deep irrationality of much of our behavior provides ample evidence, to me at least, that we are shaped by forces beyond our conscious control. More importantly, a world in which we all behaved rationally would be a world without stories.

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Wednesday 25 September 2002

The nation prepares for war (2)

Student nurses practice fighting with wooden swords
War games: students from the Nakamura Primary School
in Tochigi Prefecture practice aerial combat (February, 1940)

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Thursday 26 September 2002

Hat etiquette

“He can’t think without his hat.”

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

What’s the current thinking about men wearing hats indoors?

Growing up, I was taught that a gentleman takes off his hat whenever he enters a building. Therefore I wasn’t surprised when, in an early episode of The Sopranos, Tony takes offence at a fellow diner’s wearing a baseball cap in an upmarket restaurant. The restaurant owner is embarrassed but powerless so Tony walks over to the table and “persuades” the (initially reluctant) young man to remove his cap. I took this as evidence that David Chase, the show’s writer/producer, believes the rule about not wearing hats inside still holds firm.

But in The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), Sir Nayland Smith, the eminent Scotland Yard detective, leaves his hat on throughout a lengthy conversation in a suspect’s office. Though, given that he takes off his hat in every other interior scene, this single instance might signify contempt for the criminal class.

Saddam Hussein with hat and rifleThis morning I saw some news footage of Saddam Hussein meeting with his generals. They were all wearing their berets in the conference room whereas Saddam was bareheaded. He does have a hat though, which he wears whenever he holds his rifle in one hand and fires a few shots into the air whilst celebrating his weapons of mass destruction. In this case, he’s outside—on a balcony or a podium. Saddam clearly understands hat etiquette though his generals seem not to. Perhaps he’s just too well-mannered to order them to take their hats off during meetings.

I know how Saddam feels. In a Flash class I taught a month ago, two of the students wore their baseball caps the entire time. Even if I hadn’t felt like the restaurant owner in The Sopranos, I could hardly ask them to take off their caps because at the end of the course I had to hand each student their free baseball cap!

So, is it acceptable for men to wear hats indoors? I followed Michael Webb’s advice and asked AnswerBus, a natural language search engine.

The most useful response was a complete guide to hat etiquette by Gary Warth, staff writer for The Village Hat Shop. Although Mr Warth doesn’t actually answer the question—no doubt he’s reluctant to offend prospective customers who see nothing shameful in wearing a hat indoors—his reveals his true sympathies by quoting Miss Manners and Emily Post:

  • “Hat-wearers must be careful when putting something on the hatband… Anything put on the band of a man’s hat must be on the left side, and anything on a woman’s hatband must be on the right.”
  • “Women should keep their hats on in homes holding christenings, weddings and funerals, because in those occasions the house is treated as if it were a house of worship.”
  • “A gentleman must take off his hat when a woman enters an elevator in an apartment building or a hotel, as those are considered dwellings. He puts it on again in the hall, because a public corridor is like a street. In public buildings, however, the elevator is also considered public, and the hat can stay on.”
  • “Men tip or lift their hat only to strangers, not to friends, although a man would lift the hat if he encountered his wife. A hat also is tipped to a woman when passing in a narrow space or when the man speaks to her. If a man runs into a female acquaintance, he must take his hat off when talking to her, but can put it back on if they start walking.”

Tony Soprano understood: a society with no respect for hat etiquette is only a step away from lawlessness.

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Deflecting reality

Joseph Duemer asks:

how come most of the personification I see in student poems—which I think are a fairly good representation of the culture at large—strike me as sentimental, which is to say, untrue? Is it only because the personifications—of wind, sun, moon—are so often cliches, or is there some further deflection of reality taking place?

Steve Himmer suggests a reason:

I wonder if it’s an issue of students having the poetic tools they’ve absorbed from the canon—the nature imagery, weather, etc.—but not cutting close enough with them to the experiences they’re trying to represent. So those standard devices are rendered unable to stand in for anything except what they actually are.

When I taught photography, the photographs taken by first year students were—with very few exceptions—sentimental clichés. Finally, at the beginning of a new school year, I suggested to the other instructors a strategy for addressing the problem. We drafted a flyer and posted it on all the notice boards in the department. It read:

For this semester, the following subjects are declared off-limits to first-year photography students:

  • Closeups of bark on tree trunks
  • Shadows cast by sunlight streaming though a blind
  • Grizzled old men with silvery whiskers
  • Coils of wet rope on sand
  • Toddlers with ice cream smeared on their faces
  • Nudes
  • Grainy pictures printed on high contrast paper
  • Portraits in which the subject stares at the camera
  • Slow exposures of water running over rocks
  • Unmade beds

These subjects have been photographed so much over the past few years that they are exhausted and in need of a holiday. We expect to see them back, refreshed and enthusiastic, in six months time.

For a few weeks, the students were bereft. They’d imagined that photography consisted of re-photographing the photographs they’d seen in books and magazines. But many of them rose to the challenge, freed themselves from their habitual seeing, and started to observe the world afresh. The photographs they made were marvellous.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour