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Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

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Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008

On the passing of Arthur C. Clarke, Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate tells Space.com:


For my generation, the children of Apollo, Clarke’s writings were hugely and deeply inspirational. He was not just a technically competent writer of science fiction, science fact and futurism, but he was incredibly optimistic. I have had many emails in the last 18 hours, from friends of mine, from childhood, graduate school, adulthood. It’s amazing to me how many say the same thing: ‘I wouldn’t be in this line of work if it weren’t for Arthur Clarke.’ People across the world, especially the backbone of American aerospace exploration and space science, were inspired by Clarke’s writings at one stage or another in their youth.


The same article features similar outpourings of respect and gratitude from science-fiction authors and other technologists. For a more standard obituary, the Washington Post is your best resource


Jeff Greenwald talks about his memories of Clarke at Wired, and at Forbes, David M. Ewatt links to Clarke’s last published story, which “contains chilling warnings about emerging technology, electronic terrorism, and looming threats to life as we know it.”


 


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Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008

One of the best personal decisions I’ve made was the one to give up on writing a dissertation in English Literature. It seemed silly to quit at the end, and only when the work got serious and needed to be professionalized, but there is such a thing as sunk costs, and at some point I had to write mine off. I didn’t have any interest in being a professor. No dissertation, no matter how broad or theoretical or New Historicist, was going to make up for my deciding to study English instead of economics or even sociology, the subjects I was actually interested in. At some point, I was going to have to try to say something meaningful about literature as literature, and I didn’t believe anymore that there was anything worth saying. This may have been my imaginative failing, but I was thinking that literature had only a faint impact on life as it was lived by most people, so to comment on it is to theorize about echoes when you could be wrangling with the real thing. It seems as though you are rejecting reality for the cave and the shadows. (I have a similar understanding of real news—aka business news—versus the personal-interest vicarious-fantasy material masquerading as news. Studying literature started to seem to me a way of affirming the latter over the former.)


Still, this Nation item depressed me completely. William Deresiewicz looks at the MLA job list and comes away with these impressions:


The most striking fact about this year’s list is that the lion’s share of positions is in rhetoric and composition. That is, not in a field of literature at all but in the teaching of expository writing, the “service” component of an English department’s role within the university. Add communications and professional and technical writing, and you’ve got more than a third of the list. Another large fraction of openings, perhaps 15 percent, is in creative writing. Apparently, kids may not want to read anymore, but they all want to write. And watch. Forward-thinking English departments long ago decided to grab film studies before it got away, and the list continues to reflect that bit of subterfuge.


That’s more than half the list, and we still haven’t gotten to any, well, literature. When we do, we find that the largest share of what’s left, nearly a third, is in American literature. Even more significant is the number of positions, again about a third, that call for particular expertise in literature of one or another identity group. “Subfields might include transnational, hemispheric, ethnic and queer literatures.” “Postcolonial emphasis” is “required.” “Additional expertise in African-American and/or ethnic American literature highly desirable.” ...


This year’s Job List confirms the picture of a profession suffering from an epochal loss of confidence. It’s not just the fear you can smell in the postings. It’s the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the 18 years since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990. Nor has any major new star—a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold Bloom—emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a sense of intellectual adventure. The job market’s long-term depression has deepened the mood. Most professors I know discourage even their best students from going to graduate school; one actually refuses to talk to them about it. This is a profession that is losing its will to live.


Would that someone would have discouraged me. But the universities need writing teachers, and literature grad students can be impressed into teaching composition courses for meager wages as long as studying literature for a living can be dangled before them as enticement. In the English Department I was connected with, the rhetoric and composition folk formed a well-disciplined and highly professionalized cadre who were devoted to instrumentalizing the department’s course offerings. They had the energy for this because their teaching and their studies weren’t fatally split. They and their kind will inevitably inherit the shell of the English departments that are left when lit studies collapse completely. Perhaps they will be absorbed by Education departments, who share a similar fetish for pedagogy for pedagogy’s sake.


On a related note, John Mullen, writing in the TLS, looks at Rónán McDonald’s recent book The Death of the Critic and decides that English professors are ruining their own brand.


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Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008
What would the so-called Massachusetts "Games-as-Porn" bill really mean?

“SECTION 1. Section 31 of Chapter 272 of the General Laws, as appearing in the 2004 Official Edition, is hereby amended by deleting the definition ‘Harmful to Minors’ inserting the following new definition:  ‘Harmful to minors’, matter is harmful to minors if it is obscene or, if taken as a whole, it (1) describes or represents nudity, sexual conduct or sexual excitement, so as to appeal predominantly to the prurient interest of minors; (2) depicts violence in a manner patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community, so as to appeal predominantly to the morbid interest in violence of minors; (3) is patently contrary to prevailing standards of adults in the county where the offense was committed as to suitable material for such minors; and (4) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.


“SECTION 2. Said Section 31 of Chapter 272, as so appearing, is hereby further amended by inserting in the definition of ‘Visual Material’ after the word ‘videotape’, the following: ‘interactive media,’.”


-Full text of the proposed Massachusetts House Bill 1423, titled “An Act to Restrict the Sale of Video Games with Violent Content to Minors”


What you see above is the entirety of the bill introduced in Massachusets this week, sponsored by state representative Linda Dorcena Forry and backed by Boston mayor Thomas Menino.


From the outset, it’s easy to see that the introduction, discussion, and imminent failure of this bill is mostly for the sake of posing for cameras and influencing constituencies.  Anyone attached to a bill like this can be pointed at as a “family values” candidate, someone who supposedly has the best interests of our children in mind.  The recent popularity of gaming makes it a prime candidate for the fire and brimstone of politicians, something that people can look at and condemn at the drop of a hat as they watch it capture the imaginations of the world’s youth.  Shouldn’t they be outside, playing?  Should they really be interacting with something that treats stealing a car as a good thing?  This bill represents people who don’t understand a medium preaching to people frightened by it, a volatile combination any way you look at it.


Is this porn?

Is this porn?


Still, based on the text of the bill, one might take some issue with the ways it has been represented in the media.  For one, it is constantly referred to as the “games-as-porn” bill, which seems a bit disingenuous, since such a label seems to imply that those behind the bill are chomping at the bit to call games porn, to get them out of stores and ruin the day of the developers and publishers behind the filth.  I don’t necessarily see it that way—to me, it looks a little bit like a “games-can-be-porn” bill, which actually makes a little bit of sense, to a point.


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Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008


There has always been something accidental about Kurt Cobain’s legacy. His remains a myth forged out of an undeniable gift, cultural happenstance, and a “My Generation” style burnt out limelight. Had he not died by his own hand in 1994, the victim of so much fame and so much pain, he’d probably be a laid back Henry Rollins, regaling young emos with his cynical tales of antisocial grunge glory. But because he came and captured a moment, because he stood for something at the end of an era that had wallowed in superficial excess and carte blanche selfishness, he’s now considered a God. It’s a tag he’d never want to wear, though he gladly let you pay him for the privilege.


The internal yin and yang that drove this isolated Pacific Northwest child to the heights of rock stardom, and the depths of personal despair, are given a remarkable airing in AJ Schnack’s tone poem to one man’s talent, Kurt Cobain About a Son (released this past February on DVD by Shout! Factory). Consisting of conversations recorded with the late musician by author Michael Azerrad, we get that clichéd intimate portrait of a man coming to terms with his suddenly show biz past. Delving deep into areas that have now become iconography, while skimming over elements (drugs, his mental problems) that fail to serve his sense of place, we wind up with something akin to an unintentional elegy. On the one hand, it is clear that Cobain enjoyed most of his life. Yet there are so many fatalistic pronouncements and defeatist confessions that his suicide now seems like a forgone conclusion.


The movie begins with inspired images of Washington State - cold, autumnal, as beautiful as it is bleak. It’s Twin Peaks without the surreal soap operatics. Without even one direct portrait of the man or his now classic flannel shirt persona, landscapes and city blocks paint the picture. Schnack purposefully avoids making Cobain’s own words a support for such documentary standards. There are no old yearbook photos, no John Mellancamp like trips down Polaroid memory lane. Instead, we see Aberdeen and Olympia as they are now, reflections of the changes that Nirvana and the entire early ‘90s music revolution had on the region. The bohemia Cobain references is illustrated by current musicians and artists, some working the very same venues and spaces that, more than a decade ago, literally defined an entire cultural shift. Indeed, About a Son is as much about one man and his family as one symbol and the medium he mastered.


For the most part, Cobain’s childhood memories are soaked in a sense of measured relevance. He professes his ‘punkdom’ repeatedly, reinforcing the archetype with tales of homelessness, parental disassociation, and chucking rocks at cops. The slacker aesthetic is also championed, as idleness and a hatred of work are paired with poverty and a desire to succeed. There is very little about music here. While there are namechecks to Queen (and News of the World) as well as fabled influences like The Vaselines and Butthole Surfers, Cobain is very closed about his own muse. We don’t even realize he is talking about Nirvana until he specifically mentions the recording of Bleach. There are riffs on catering corporate interest, and a plan to garner favor by including little prizes with each unsolicited demo tape, but the songwriting process is barely mentioned.



Of course, one has to put these conversations into context. Cobain would die almost a year from the last of these late night Q&As, and he was riding a wave of tabloid fervor over his tumultuous marriage to Courtney Love. One of the most revelatory moments of the entire film comes when said wife is mentioned. Though it’s clear that Cobain adored his spouse and child, he calls Love one of the most prophetic names in the annals of flame out rock stardom - Nancy Spungen. While it may be Freudian, it’s also the kind of fuel bound to fan a hundred angry messageboard screeds. The John and Yoko element of their coupling is a surface barely scratched, and when pressed about their partnership, Cobain gives an odd, detached answer. He’d already quit Courtney several times - just like his band.


The rest of Nirvana gets equally light airplay. Krist Novoselic comes across as the kind of agent provocateur Cobain was desperate to find. Grohl is the roommate who pressed the royalties issue later on. Others who fell in and out of the band are left out of the mix, and the entire tone of the material is businesslike and perfunctory. It’s odd to hear this man so centered on money. The parable talks of a wounded butterfly who tried to press art out of the MTV dervish of marketing and merchandising. But in About a Son, he’s frank about his financial focus. While offered under the guise of taking care of his then infant daughter Frances Bean, there’s clearly a cutthroat approach to the music industry in the man’s attitude. It’s something that goes hand in hand with all the frontloaded foreboding.


In fact, if Cobain were not already dead, one would picture him less than a step away from such a self-inflicted end. The notorious issues with his back and stomach are touched on, each one dissipating into a “wanting to kill myself” diagnosis. Heroin, when broached, also warrants a similar response. Clearly, Cobain was a man afflicted with demons, but he also appears in harmony with such horrors, chalking it up to his personality and his parenting. One of the things About a Son lacks (and it’s something the DVD avoids as well) is a clear explanation of such facets. Obviously on his guard most of the time, we have to infer a great many things from the man’s hints and circular conclusions. But that’s also the beauty of this mesmerizing document. It’s rare that we get to hear a famous face, in his own words, try and explain his celebrity.



It’s this very dissection that also helps this movie soar. Instead of relying on backseat psychologist or post-modern head shrinking, Azzerad and Schnack let the subject study himself. The lack of another presence, the use of day to day visuals to support the foundation, allows the many meanings in Cobain’s riffs to resonate. Our director does imply a few feelings (he admits as much on the scene specific audio commentary included on the disc) and when the images of the man finally appear at the end, the strategy seems more than sound. We are moved by the comparison between the frail, elfish human onscreen and the voice from Heaven we’ve heard for 90 minutes. It’s a juxtaposition that encapsulates everything that makes Cobain’s myth so unexpected. His songs may say it all (rights issues keep them out here, sadly), but there was much more on his mind than chorus and verse. About a Son proves that in sad, salutary spades.


 


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