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Monday, Jun 9, 2008

At PSFK, Dan Gould posts about Evan Baden, who photographs people entranced by their electronic gadgets. Baden writes, “More and more, we are bathed in a silent, soft, and heavenly blue glow. It is as if we carry divinity in our pockets and purses.”


Baden makes much of the technological innovation of gadgets and the “wealth of knowledge and communication” they allow, but it’s worth remembering that the 18th century had the same reaction to the technological innovation of the day, books. The site hosting Baden’s work poses this ominous question: “Their faces, made cadaverous by the artificial light, are expressionless, suggesting that, as we become more connected by our electronics, we become less connected to our immediate surroundings. This leaves us to wonder: do we own our electronics, or do they own us?” This echoes the society-wide fears of reading in the 18th century, primarily of women being preoccupied with books, which were seen as dangerous threats to their autonomy and education and their presumed role in the world. These fears supplied the substance of an array of plays, essays, and novels that fretted over women spending too much time reading and being emotionally altered by what they read. Like interactive gadgetry, books (novels especially) require the imaginative participation of the reader to make them come alive and work effectively. So perhaps any new media is destined to face this kind of criticism, that it is corrupting its users, removing them from contact with “reality” into some dangerously vulnerable trance state.


Compare this image


with this famous painting by Fragonard.


For more images, professor William Warner has collected a bunch for his essay on the subject here. Warner points out, “Like television watching in the mid 20th century, novel reading took France and England by storm; like television watching, reading novels engendered excitement and resistance in the societies where it first flourished.” He cites Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality, a study of 18th-century French painting’s representation of absorptive states (such as the ones Baden photographs) and the self-forgetting they suggest. Fried makes much of the way the figures in such paintings ignore the beholder, signifying a total self-absorption that constitutes at the same time a total self-forgetting, the loss of social self-consciousness. To achieve this effect, Fried argues, painters had to take pains to obliterate the point of view of the beholder. The “neutralization” that the paintings achieve enables the beholder to feel, Fried claims. The refusal to be acknowledged by the painting’s figures “seems to have given Greuze’s contemporaries a deep thrill of pleasure and in fact to have transfixed them before the canvas,” Fried writes. This may be because the beholder is made to feel outside the network of surveillance for a moment—this may be in fact what those staring into their iPods and BlackBerry’s paradoxically feel—that they are orchestrating the flow of communication around them, rather than being caught up in its web.


At the same time, onlookers are made to feel like voyeurs, as Fried claims beholders were when confronted with paintings full of absorbed figures. This heightens the reality-TV feeling of using gadgets in public, and I think it explains why some people feel the need to talk loudly on their phones in public spaces. Using the gadget renders the sense that we are eminently observable more powerful—because the gadget user is completely absorbed, they are more completely vulnerable to being watched, though the gadget using itself may be a theatrical behavior, seeking to attract the attention it seems to be oblivious to.


Fried posits that “a new kind of beholder” must be created—in other words, a new kind of vicariousness must be fomented in consumers of art that renders them paradoxically absent and present in the scene represented. They need to identify and judge and oscillate between those positions. Ien Ang identified this very motion in Watching Dallas, a study of how television series function. Ang points to “a constant to and fro movement between identification with and distance from the fictional world as constructed” in the work being consumed. Writes Fried, concluding his analysis of the new kind of art consumer: “The very condition of spectatordom, stands indicted as theatrical, a medium of estrangement rather than of absorption, sympathy and self-transcendence.” That seems to be the relationship we have with gadgets, and one another when we are using them.


 


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Sebadoh
Soul and Fire” (acoustic demo) [MP3] (from Bubble and Scrape Deluxe Edition (Domino/Sub Pop), releasing 8 July 2008 in the US)
     


Apollo Sunshine
666: The Coming of the New World Government [MP3] (from Shall Noise Upon, releasing 2 September 2008 in the US)
     


Amplive vs. MGMT
Of Moons, Birds & Monsters [Communication Edit ft. Mistah Fab] [MP3]
     


Modey Lemon


“A fuzzed-out, driving masterpiece with catchy hooks beaten to death by guitar/synth mayhem by Pittsburgh’s most-loved sons. Equal parts sci-fi darkness, garage angst-ridden wreckage, and kautrock brilliance.”—Birdman Records


Become a Monk [MP3]
     


Ice Fields [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


Tilly & the Wall
Pot Kettle Black [MP3]
     


The Gang


“Formed out of a love for playing music for people, Brooklyn-based The Gang is trying to lend form to a feeling through their own brand of rock. Recommended if you like Mission of Burma, Le Savy Fav, The Go! Team, and Fugazi.”—Absolutely Kosher


One Up the Sun [MP3]
     


Sea So [MP3]
     


The Melvins
Nude with Boots [MP3]
     



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Monday, Jun 9, 2008

Ronan McDonald’s recent book, The Death of the Critic, which argues that literary criticism should be evaluative so that it can reach a broad audience and therefore be relevant, has prompted some discussion at The Valve and Salon. Writes McDonald, in a passage excerpted by professor Rohan Maitzen here, “Perhaps the critic is not dead, but simply sidelined and slumbering. The first step in reviving him or her is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. ‘Judgment’ is the first meaning of kritos. If criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative.”


McDonald appears to be serious in arguing that the academic study of literature should focus on whether works are good or bad, inviting a return to the “warm bath” approach to pedagogy that invites us to luxuriate in the Great Works and congratulate one another on how perceptive we are in appreciating them. But who establishes the terms of correct aesthetic judgment? It seems like a will to power is all that’s required, and then the spread of one’s aesthetic tenets serves no greater function than oppressing the world with your particular tastes. And if it’s not simply egotism, usually a covert political agenda is being served—the way the New Criticism tended to denigrate political works in favor of sterile formalism, which guaranteed quietism in the humanities. McDonald argues that true criticism was destroyed by cultural studies and its political agendas, but passing judgment is a political act. What is so hard to understand about that? You can’t impose an aesthetic value system on the public without imposing at the same time an implied set of political views, usually conservative ones, since the very act of imposing your judgment on others is an elitist proposition. (Not surprisingly, McDonald doesn’t like the democratization of criticism—probably because he suspects democracy as a principle. What, all those rubes out there get to have their own opinion, and it should count in the social world we share?) An aesthetics is always political; otherwise it’s merely solipsistic.


Speaking of solipsism, McDonald’s concerns over the democratization of criticism prompts this blithe statement from Salon’s Louis Bayard:


The problem with arguing for cultural gatekeepers is that, if you’re a professional critic, you inevitably look self-serving—“Hey, that’s my job!”—and yes, elitist—“Don’t try this at home, guys.” I myself don’t have any particular training or qualifications to be a reviewer, other than my own experience as a reader and writer, so I feel silly arguing that someone else isn’t qualified to deliver an opinion. And believe it or not, I’ve learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.


Believe it or not? Bayard’s point is well-taken but is undermined utterly by that condescending interjection. Oh, is the great Louis Bayard to deign to find himself informed by the great illiterate mass of monkeys pounding away at their naive Amazon reviews and noncommercial blogs? I’m left with a sense of the mammoth amount of entitlement that critics seem to feel by their appointment to their prominent perches, and if that sort of critic is dying, I’d be happy to shovel the dirt on the grave. You have to hope he was being ironic in a way that is not coming across—which itself is an index of the distrust between critics and readers (readers like me, anyway).


Maitzen’s conclusion seems pertinent to the question of that distrust:


I share McDonald’s concern about the isolation of academic expertise from today’s reading culture more generally…I think, too, that he is right to be looking at questions of judgment and how they are understood and articulated as one of the flashpoints for misunderstanding or resentment between academics and other readers. I just don’t see how his prescription to be more evaluative is an adequate response, unless (at the minimum) it is accompanied by a commitment to showing why the question “Is it of any merit?” requires substantial complication before a worthwhile answer is possible. The responsibility here is not all ours: ideally, readers would want, not to be dictated to, but to be engaged in debate worthy of the books they are considering.


Criticism that prompts readers to become critics themselves in their own way would be healing the divide. That’s why the flowering of millions of critics on the internet should be heralded as success, not failure or death.
If critics—any critics, academic or otherwise—deserve our attention, it seems that should be a matter of their being interesting in their own right, producing something compelling from their interaction with some other work that makes us want to think and talk about it too. Mere evaluation seems the least interesting outcome of such an interaction. At best, it prompts tautological arguments about taste.


McDonald believes that “If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public,” but I’m not sure why that matters. Does criticism need to compete on the same turf as marketing, and should it really strive to become more like marketing (evalutive criticism of the most straightforward sort), because it happens to have an extremely wide public in our commercial society? McDonald apparently laments academic critics’ loss of public influence, but I’m not sure why they would deserve it; surely it’s better that critics are taking less of the attention away from the art they would, under McDonald’s system, be judging? Academic critics in general write repetitive and aggressively unreadable prose; this is because the mechanics of the profession demand it. (Academics must prove their mastery of a field through tedious recounting of previous scholarship, then they must prove a mastery of the field’s arcane lingo, which helps establish the discipline’s authority.) Were they to write in a more accessible fashion—for lay readers rather than their peers—they would be undermining the credibility of their field, th epresumption that special training is required to perform the sort of analysis in which they have become specialized. If we don’t think these specialized analyses are worth performing, better then to argue for the abolishment of literature departments, and turn literary analysis back over to the Virginia Woolfs of the world, the leisure-class dilettantes with the time and inclination to parse fictions.


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008
New Releases for the Week of 2008-06-09...

I’ve never been someone you could call a launch-day adopter, usually opting to wait until brand new consoles get a) cheaper and b) a little bit more readily available.


We're counting the minutes…

We’re counting the minutes…


There was a time, however, when my then-girlfriend and I decided that paying out the ear for a PlayStation 2 was a good idea (this was in January of ‘01), because hey, it was a DVD player too!  And for the better part of that year, it was a fun toy that occasionally came in most handy when we really, desperately felt that we needed to have a DVD (a format which, at that point, was still something of a novelty).


In November, everything changed.


I hadn’t actually played anything past the demo of the original Metal Gear Solid, but I got swept up in the massive amounts of hype for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, purchasing it as soon as it came out.  It remains, to this day, my favorite PlayStation 2 experience of all time.  It was something that I could play while my girlfriend watched, and while I would be entertained by the stealth and the constant tension, my girlfriend could be entertained by the lengthy (and often hilariously convoluted) storyline.  It was a game we would play instead of watching our favorite television shows, and the turning point that transformed the PS2 from a fun curiosity to an all-out entertainment machine.


The guy could have a walker and be out of teeth; I stillwouldn't want to mess with Snake.

The guy could have a walker and be out of teeth; I still
wouldn’t want to mess with Snake.


Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was just as good a play experience, but it came at a time in our lives when games simply could not take the priority that they once did, so it didn’t leave nearly the impression that MGS2 did.  Still, the affection I hold for MGS2 means that anything related to the series gets my full attention—especially a full-on sequel.


Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots looks incredible.  From the shock and awe of the Movie Voiceover Guy trailer to the 15-minute beast that’s been floating around for a couple of years now, every little bit of publicity I’ve seen for MGS4 makes it look like an incredible experience.  Heck, even Raiden, the much-ridiculed primary player of MGS2, looks like he’s grown up a bit, perhaps inspiring a mite less criticism for his presence.  All in all, the thing looks incredible, and I’m going to have a really, really hard time paying attention to anything else until next week.  Maybe this game is what transforms the PS3 into its own full-on entertainment machine.


Once again, it's style over realism on the Wii.  Developers arefinally getting the hang of this little console…

Once again, it’s style over realism on the Wii.  Developers are
finally getting the hang of this little console…


Obviously, things are pretty quiet elsewhere on the release front.  Nascar fans get the latest iteration of EA’s circuit simulation, and Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles looks fun in a sort of Hotel Dusk meets Phoenix Wright kind of way.  Wii owners also have the inventive-looking shooter Blast Works: Build Trade Destroy on its way this week, in which you get to build up your own ship out of the pieces of other ships.  Like a cannibalistic Vic Viper.  It’ll make a perfect game to play with the kids (rated E and everything!) during those times of day when Metal Gear Solid 4 might not be, you know, appropriate.


The full release list and the Movie Trailer Guy trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4 (just because I’m obsessed with it) is after the break.


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Monday, Jun 9, 2008

It’s a totally mixed bag this week. I’ve just started reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I’m halfway through Markus Zusak’s I am the Messenger. Firoozeh Dumas’ Funny in Farsi is also in the bedside pile, as it caught my eye when I was shelf-reading the biographies last week at the library.


image

The more ‘literary’ graphic novel trend continues as well as I am slowly working through Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History on short breaks at work; Art Spiegelman’s incredible Holocaust memoir (rendered on behalf of his father) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, which was a huge step forward for the graphic novel genre.


Time is not on my side, however, because the high school is going to close soon and all materials are due to be returned in the next week. Perhaps I can try to do without sleep for a few days?


I tend to read mostly fiction, but I’m trying to be more openminded about nonfiction, biography, and other genres. Do you stick to one genre most of the time or alternate between several? Perhaps get caught up in historical nonfiction for awhile, then switch to Victorian fiction and on to comic books a few weeks later? What genre(s) are you reading this week?


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