19 April 2008

Expelled: Ben Stein’s “Smart New Ideas” ?

In honor of the premier of Expelled, Ben Stein’s film about the exclusion of intelligent design/creationism from school curricula, I offer these snippets to support his argument that fresh ideas that conflict with evolutionary theory are excluded from the classroom:
“Sow evolution as taught by Darwin and [Herbert] Spencer and you reap Nietzche, [Heinrich von] Treitzchke, and [Friedrich von] Bernhardi, and then you reap the present way, with its cruelty, its lust, its murder, its rape, its agony, its death and almost universal dissolution and hell” (Torrey 10-11). [1]
On Evolutionary Theory:
After many years’ investigation of the philosophy of evolution, an investigation carried on in full sympathy with the widest application of that captivating theory, I have yet to see proof of a single fact showing, or tending to show, the operation of the so-called “law” or “principle” of evolution in the world of Nature. No instance has ever been found of a living thing of one species coming from ancestors of another species; and there is not the slightest ground for the belief that such a thing ever happened (Mauro 45). [2]
Aside: part of Mauro’s doubt about the theory of evolution stems from his belief that "[i]f the Bible does not give us a truthful account of the events of the six days recorded in its first chapter, it is not to be trusted in any of its statements " (27).

Some Middle Ground on the Six Days (perhaps):
Does science, then, really, contradict Genesis I.? [. . .]Here certainly is no detailed description of the process of the formation of the earth in terms anticipative of modern science—terms which would have been unintelligible to the original readers—but a sublime picture, true to the order of nature, as it is to the broad facts even of geological succession [. . . .] The “six days” may remain as a difficulty to some, but if this is not part of the symbolic setting of the picture—a great divine “week” of work—one may well ask, as was done by Augustine long before geology was thought of, what kind of “days” these were which rolled their course before the sun, with its twenty-four hours of diurnal measurement, was appointed to that end? There is no violence done to the narrative in substituting in thought “aeonic” days—vast cosmic periods—for “days” in our narrower, sun-measured scale. The the last trace of apparent "conflict" disappears (101). [3]
Although Stein’s premise in the film is that academia prevents the airing of “smart new ideas” on the complex origins of the universe, please note that all of the above, which echo throughout Expelled, were written prior to 1920. Items one and two, especially, remain the primary objections to the theory of evolution. Apparently, some doctrines simply don’t, well, evolve.
1) Reuben Torrey. “What the War Teaches, or, The Greatest Lesson of 1917.” LA: Bible Institute of LA, 1918.
2) Philip Mauro. “Life in the Word.” The Fundamentals. Vol. 5. LA: Bible Institute of LA, 1917.
3) James Orr, “Science and the Christian Faith.” The Fundamentals. Vol.4. LA: Bible Institute of LA, 1917.

17 April 2008

Wyndham Lewis, Revisited

At The Guardian’s books page, Nigel Beale notes The National Portrait Gallery’s decision to present a retrospective of Wyndham Lewis’s portraits. In an article, “Wyndham Lewis: overlooked scourge of mediocrity,” Beale reviews Lewis’s reputation as a class-A jerk because he vocalized his scorn (loudly) at the art world’s increasing collaboration with the business world (he also supported Hitler in the 1920s. Lewis rejected fascism in the 1930s). As a result of his hostile commentary on the “commercialisation of literature” and his tendency to burn economic bridges, Lewis, one of the early architects of Modernism, the co-creator of Vorticism, the editor of the journal BLAST, died penniless. As Beale writes:
His life is proof that prodigious, widely recognised talent isn't enough to secure reputation: ass-kissing and fib-telling, flattery and tongue-biting are often required to make careers. The alternative, for those incapable of sycophancy is squalor: the kind in which he lived, blind, during the final years [. . . .] Lewis's range of knowledge and intellectual vitality, his gale-force energy and daring honesty, his vigorous experimentation and fighting spirit, his caustic wit and analytic ingenuity, his whip-cracking prose and astonishing invention are unmatched in the twentieth century." National Gallery [retrospective] notwithstanding, it seems if you want to tell the truth without compromising, you have to die poor and have your literary immortality postponed for at least 50 years.
It's true that Lewis maintained some egregious socio-political views (see his early support for Hitler), but the man was, indeed, gifted (see his 1915 novel Tarr). This new retrospective will, no doubt, reignite the contentious debate that pits an artist’s views against his or her product (e.g., should we read the work of an anti-Semite? Should we applaud that of a misogynist?). So be it. At the very least, Lewis will be introduced to a new audience, one that, I hope, will consider and evaluate his work judiciously. A fresh look at Lewis would further inform our understanding of “modernism” in both its aesthetic and historical sense, thereby adding to our understanding of English (and by extension) American culture in the early twentieth century.

It's Clinton’s Sex, not Clinton's Gender.

I’m on a linguistic high horse today; please bear with me.

It’s a buzzword in the current campaign, but can we please stop referring to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s gender? That is, can we cease and desist from describing the Democratic competition as an historic event due to the candidates’ “gender and race,” of the conflict of/between “gender and race” amongst voters, and similar statements?

Let’s define our terms:

When we’re talking of human beings, "gender" indicates (normative) behavioral characteristics, as in masculinity and femininity.

On the other hand, "sex" indicates biological makeup. The female gender does not menstruate, endure menopause, nor undergo pregnancy. The female sex does.

The differentiation between sex and gender was “first developed in the 1950s and 1960s by British and American psychiatrists and other medical personnel working with intersex and transsexual patients. Since then, the term gender has been increasingly used to distinguish between sex as biological and gender as socially and culturally constructed. Feminists have used this terminology to argue against the ‘biology is destiny’ line, and gender and development approaches have widely adopted this system of analysis” (Esplen and Jolly). I would think that HRC, as a second wave feminist, would have noted this distinction between gender and sex that her peers struggled to question and define; e.g., are women innately nurturing, maternal, irrational, weak, and emotional? Are men inherently practical, stoic, authoritative, capable, competitive, and logical? Which set of characteristics suits Mrs. Clinton? Right. Gender = sex / sex = gender doesn’t quite equate.

Every time someone refers to Clinton’s gender, or of how women voters are concerned about one of their gender getting to the presidency, I'm inclined to cringe. This reaction might strike some as petty, or as pedantic, or (horrors!) politically correct, but precision in language is critical. Think of all the associations that resound whenever any particular word is used. Each time a commentator mentions Clinton’s gender in the presidential race, a connotative echo follows that reinscribes the arguments of how and why a woman should be distanced from leading a nation—because of her femininity. It’s a cliché, but Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi, to name but two modern female leaders, should have dispelled such myths (honestly, do you think of Margaret Thatcher as a member of the female gender? As a woman, yes, but as feminine? ).

While discussing the role of sexism and attacking myths about female behavior in Clinton's White House pursuit, perhaps Clinton's supporters could help avoid exacerbating prejudice by not reminding folks, however implicitly, of the woman's gender.

Aside: Then again, replacing "gender" with "sex" might raise some unique problems: it probably wouldn't be wise for Hillary to say, "sex issues" haven't received the same "kind of attention" as racial concerns in the primary campaign, nor would using "sex" help enlist further support from undecided voters: what kind of connotations would “sex” raise when associated with a Clinton?

15 April 2008

Sullivan asks, "Would Clinton Prefer McCain to Obama?"

Andrew Sullivan, one of the country’s more compassionate, earnest commentators, has issued a blistering critique of the new ad produced by HRC’s camp to score some Pennsylvania points on the "Obama-elitist" thing. Sullivan writes of the commercial:

This ad has managed to actually shock me. Yes, me, rabid Clinton-hater, second only to Hitchens in Clinton Derangement Syndrome, proud holder of the view that Senator Clinton is one of the ghastliest examples of pure political cynicism and opportunism in public life, an empty, reverberating shell of a human being, a case study in how power and the search for it do indeed in the end corrupt absolutely [. . . .] This is far too crude even for Karl Rove. It is a parody of a brutal Rove ad. Without batting an eyelid, Clinton effortlessly adopts the entire worldview of the most cynical of Republican operatives and applies it with the delicacy of a shovel to the likely Democratic party nominee. This is a) how desperate she must know feel; b) how utterly irrelevant it is to her what happens in this election unless she is the next Democratic nominee for president.

Okay, so maybe Sullivan's compassion fails to extend to the Clintons. Even so, I think he’s nailed it dead on here.

Sadly, whereas I used to view Hillary as a strong, positive woman with deeply-held convictions about the social good, I now see her as corrosive--due, largely, to her napalm-scented campaigning technique.
Where I used to see a woman of character, I now see a woman who, in adapting and applying the smear techniques that the VRWC used against her, her husband and her party, has aligned herself with the ugliest of politicos—the Karl Roves, the Lee Atwaters—in her quest for the presidency.

Is this sexist? No. I the same rules apply to any hardened, cynical, and hyper-partisan politician in the U. S.—and the woman, is partisan. If we elect her, we can anticipate four-to- eight more years of disastrously deadlocked government.

14 April 2008

Kenneth Anger's Rabbit's Moon

I got through my MA thesis by viewing Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs daily. Whenever I settled down for a spate of scholarship, I’d plug my VHS tape in and start typing along to Tim Roth's howls ("I'm fuckin' dyin' here"). It was awesome (if a little disturbing). Anyway, I’ve lacked a similar soundtrack for my current project. I think I’ve found it.
Rabbit’s Moon, a film by Kenneth Anger, is gorgeously shot in blues and silvers and with a skipped-frame technique (I’m sure there’s a proper name for this, but I’m unfamiliar with it). Anger shot the film in a warehouse in Paris during 1950. According to the Anger's commentary on the DVD, three students of Marcel Marceau’s school of mime perform in the film; they enact traditional figures from the Commedia dell’Arte (Pierrot, Harlequin, and Columbine).

Anger re-edited the film in 1972 and again in 1979. The version that I find most captivating is that of 1979, and part of the reason is its soundtrack: Rabbit’s Moon features a kinda glam, kinda Beatles-esque, but supercool song titled “It Came in the Night.” A gentleman named Andy Arthurs wrote the song, and his Brit band “A Raincoat” released it as a single in 1975 (aside: Mr Arthurs is now a Professor at the Queensland University of Technology).
Rather than "ruin" Rabbit’s Moon with a synopsis, I’ll show you towards YouTube to view the 1979 version. Caveat: the visual quality isn’t the best, but you get a taste for this hypnotic film’s evocative, plaintive, lyric beauty.

NB: Superfilmsleuth Michael Cohen details his seven year search to identify “It Came in the Night” and its writer at Flickhead. Cohen's page also features an mp3 of “It Came in the Night” for download.

12 April 2008

Dr. Phil Undermines Integrity (Again)

Dr. Phil's gone and got himself a slice of that Florida action. Apparently, via a producer, he's provided bond for Mercades Nichols, the brat-in-chief of the gang who filmed themselves beating up a 16 year old in Florida. Further, according to this news report, as Dr. Phil’s producer helped the brat and her mother depart the Big House, he “told other reporters to leave because the Dr. Phil show had exclusive right to Nichols’ story.” That Dr. Phil, he's a lovely man, isn’t he? So ethical, so generous of heart and spirit.

And pity poor Miss Nichols; to think this started because she and her pack of idiots wanted to get even with someone who posted smack about them to Facebook. Good to know that strategy has worked out so well for the lot of them.

An update one hour later: Dr. Phil’s people have contacted TMZ to say they've nixed plans for a show on those Florida teens; you see, posting the girl's bond “compromised” “the show’s guidelines.” Moreover, the producer who posted Nichols’ bond did so without the show’s permission. A sound decision. Naturally, they don't want to challenge the integrity of The Dr. Phil Show.

10 April 2008

Brats Go Wild in Baltimore and Florida

A seriously "WTF" moment.

In Baltimore, a student attacked her art teacher and beat her severely while classmates cheered the girl on. One student recorded the incident on her 'phone and posted the video on MySpace.

When told of the event, the school's principal told the teacher, Ms. Jolita Berry, that she'd provoked the student--and did nothing. Oh, the girl was suspended, but is that "something"? Shouldn't the girl have been arrested? Apparently, no-one even contacted the police.

In other brats-gone-wild news, eight Florida teenagers (aged between 14 and17) involved in an attack on a 16 year old girl got some news today: they'll be tried as adults. Good.

These kids knocked the young woman unconscious, waited for her to wake up, and then proceeded to beat the hell out of her. The reason? Some kind of Facebook-induced hostility. The eight teens filmed the attack and threatened to post the video on MySpace and YouTube (I don't know if they carried out this threat).

For once, I'm pretty much speechless. A good thing, I guess, because otherwise I'd be posting all kinds of crazy, generalized nonsense about "kids today." I'll write more once I chill out (and get some work done).

09 April 2008

Cole Porter--Modernist?


While residing in Paris in 1923, the all-American songwriter noted for such pop standards as “Let’s Do It,” “Too Darn Hot,” and (my favorite) “In the Still of the Night” composed Within the Quota, a “jazz ballet” (or “ballet-sketch” according to the Yale online catalog of Porter material), for the avant-garde dance company, Les Ballet Suedois (apparently, second only to the Ballets Russe). A “comic tale about a Swedish immigrant to America” (Anderson), the ballet was a hit in Paris, but on Broadway—not so much.

The cubist painter Gerald Murphy (another American expat) designed Within the Quota’s décor and costumes and, according to some notes, wrote the libretto (The New Yorker ran an intriguing article on Murphy and his wife, Sara, in the magazine’s August 6, 2007 edition). Jean Borlin, Les Ballet Suedois’s principal dancer, choreographed the piece.

Porter premiered his jazz ballet on October 25, 1923--four months before George Gershwin premiered Rhapsody in Blue (February 1924). Apparently, Porter considered Within the Quota as his “legitimate” work, his “one effort to be respectable” (qtd. in Kisselgoff)

Alas, I’ve not seen Within the Quota, and I’ve yet to read anything that considers it within a “modernist” context (although many commentators do link Porter to the “Lost Generation,” but, collectively, that group’s status as “modernist” is often queried). The question of Cole Porter as Modernist invites investigation--and a little re-tooling of the great lyricist’s creative biography. Sadly, I’m still up to my neck in another expat modernist (or two), so Cole Porter must wait.


"[T]hat is what is so great about the Internet. It enables pompous blowhards to connect with other pompous blowhards in a vast circle jerk of pomposity" (Bill Maher, 04 April 2008).

08 April 2008

The Futility of Bush-Bitching

I’m listening to the Petraeus report to Congress on NPR and feeling more than a little discouraged. The USA’s involvement in Iraq thing is going nowhere, despite the limited successes of the “surge,” and the USA can’t simply up stakes and leave. It’s heartsickening. We’re “stuck,” and what are we doing to resolve the issue other than continue operations “as is”? Include me as one of many who are fed up with the Augean stables that Iraq has become (not that the Iraqis are comparable to cattle; rather, the USA’s attempt to clean up after itself is pretty gruesome).

And one more thing, how does the continual bemoaning of the misintelligence, obfuscations, and falsehoods that permitted the 2003 invasion help? Yes, the administration’s actions leading up to the war were atrocious, perhaps criminal, but what does the persistence in Bush-bitching accomplish? Little, it seems, beyond enabling the self-satisfaction of those who want to “prove” that they were right to be suspicious of GWB in 2000. Don’t get me wrong: I am not, nor ever have been, a supporter of either Bush or Cheney. Nor have I supported the invasion of Iraq at any point. But it’s time to move beyond the smug lamentations and work towards developing reasonable ideas for our gradual withdrawal that wouldn’t further endanger Iraqis caught up in the USA v. Middle East mess.

However. . .

Although I say it’s time to work toward resolution rather than focus on the disastrous pre-war political and intelligence machinations, this doesn’t mean that I’m prepared—or willing--to support a politician who voted for the resolution that permitted the Iraq invasion in the first place. To have voted for the resolution smacks either of ignorance (as in, someone didn't read the intelligence report) or a wish to remain in the administration's (and voters') good graces. So either idiocy or pandering. Take your pick.

Let’s do have an independent body investigate the administration’s pre-war activities fully and, if any criminal actions occurred, prosecute those responsible to the fullest extent of the law. Better yet, send them to Iraq in fatigues. The constant griping, however, is not helping us progress towards a “real” solution (and I s'pose this post fits with the former, so I'll stop now).

In a somewhat related offering, The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani offers a scathing review of Blitcon Martin Amis’s recent publication, The Second Plane, a collection of essays on terrorism. Kakutani’s snakebite of a review concludes: “‘The Second Plane’” is such a weak, risible and often objectionable volume that the reader finishes it convinced that Mr. Amis should stick to writing fiction and literary criticism, as he’s thoroughly discredited himself with these essays as any sort of political or social commentator.” Ouch.

Stephen King, The New York Times, and Kulchur

As much as I love my Ulysses, my Bleak House, and my Eliot, I love my Stephen King. Indeed, I’ve a thing for the horror genre (oh, sure—I’ve probably got some dysfunctional psychological mechanism that prompts this taste, but what the hell). I’ve just finished King’s most recent novel, Duma Key, which was fine. It wasn’t overwhelming in characterization, in atmosphere, or in thrills, but it was King. I’m mighty fond of his plainspoken, intertextual, pop-culturally literate storytelling that focuses on quirky, but often quite normal folks. King reflects and recreates contemporary Americana much as Dickens did with Victoriana (and not the frilly, silly kind). Are his works “lowbrow”? At this time, many would say “yes.” In the future? Well, who knows how readers of 2042 will view King. Y’all know that Dickens was a pop culture writer, correct? And yes, the term “pop culture” is a fairly recent invention, as is the distinction between “high” and “low” culture (see Huyssen, After the Great Divide, for just one text that deals with the categorization of “high culture” and “mass culture” as a modern phenomenon). The latter point brings us back to Duma Key, and a response I’ve been itching to make for the past month.
The novel received an “iffy” review from James Campbell in a March 2nd New York Times book review. It was an average review (and I’d qualify the novel as “average.” Sorry SK. I did enjoy Lisey's Story though); Campbell neither damned nor celebrated the novel. What I found interesting, however, was Campbell’s discussion of the high/low divide, which essentially branded King, and other popular writers, as contributing little more to culture than commercial revenue.
In 2003, King was awarded with National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In his review, Campbell draws on King’s acceptance speech (in full here), specifically, King’s references to those who “‘make a point of pride’ of choosing not to read John Grisham, Clive Barker, or Mary Higgins Clark: ‘What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?’” (King qtd. in Campbell). Campbell cites King’s reprimand to those who resist pop lit (several of whom, apparently, resisted the NBF’s decision to award King the medal). Fair enough. Unfortunately, Campbell then distorts and inverts King’s argument so that it becomes a sort of reverse-snobbery as he suggests that King supports a culture defined by commercial interests: “[l]eaving aside the discourtesy of suggesting that his listeners’ reading habits were directed by snobbery rather than taste, the remark posits a view of a culture based not on the best that is thought and said, but on the highest returns at the cash register” (Campbell). Firstly, King targets readers who “make [it] a point of pride” to reject popular fiction out of hand, not people who simply don’t enjoy it. I think it’s safe to say that the former type indeed practices cultural snobbery. Such behavior brings to mind some of my more smug acquaintances who assert “I never watch reality shows because they’re for the sheep. No one of any intellect would watch American Idol or Survivor [etc.].” I’m not saying that people should watch reality shows if they’re sincerely uninterested in them, but taking pride in the wholesale rejection of said shows speaks volumes about the insecurities of the person who must appear culturally superior (which smacks of the poseur).
Moreover, culture is more than Matthew Arnold’s definition of “the best that is thought or said”; culture is, if the Oxford English Dictionary is to be trusted, “The distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life of a particular society, people, or period. Hence: a society or group characterized by such customs, etc.” This prosaic, rather than romantic or idealistic, definition is inclusive and involves all members of society as they both consume and contribute to culture, be it the jazz connoisseurs or the hip-hoppers, the opera supporters or the Celine Dion fans (okay—maybe that’s stretching it, but you get the point), the Stephen Kings or the William Faulkners.
Despite complaining about King’s complaints, Campbell narrows his argument by returning his focus to Duma Key. However, he tries to have it two ways in qualifying the novel’s cultural status: first, he attempts to measure Duma Key against a definition of “literary fiction”—a standard that the novel fails to meet (and a criteria King has never claimed of his work). After Campbell negates the novel’s “literary” value, he judges the book on its merits as pop fiction by noting (in a modification of a Wildean epigram) that “there is no such thing as popular or literary fiction. ‘Books are well written or badly written. That is all.’” And while this remark might target Duma Key, questioning its status as “well written,” which is fair, this concluding statement’s generosity in resisting a divide between “literary” and “popular” rings false, for Campbell has, indeed, re-inscribed the difference between “literary” and “popular” fiction, explicitly and implicitly, several times in the body of his review.
King doesn’t claim to write great literature; the man consistently refers to himself as a storyteller. It’s interesting that others insist on making the distinction between “high art” and King’s craft as though he’s presuming to be an artiste and intruding on “proper writers’” literary space. Ah, well. So goes the neverending kulchur war. Cheers, Mr. “sweetness and light,” you old tastemaker you.

Update, 09 April: I've just discovered a review of Campbell's review over at The Seated View. It's a treat.