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Wednesday, Jan 3, 2007

I keep suspecting MLA types will eventually seize upon Hayek for fresh philosophical underpinnings sufficient to generate new readings of the lit classics. This would perhaps satisfy increasingly whiny right-wing critics of academia’s liberal bias (Michael Berube’s dismissal of that myth notwithstanding) and provide a new direction for theory to go now that the profession is “beyond” or “after” theory. Sure enough, Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein recently published this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the alleged liberal conspiracy against Hayek in favor of Foucault (who, strangely enough, in his latter days actually went around encouraging people to read Hayek, whose ideas about spontaneous order resemble Foucault’s account of power dispersed in institutions.)


While Hayek’s defense of free markets (for which he won the Nobel prize in economics in 1974) influenced global politics far more than Foucault’s analyses of social institutions like psychiatry and prisons, the two thinkers enjoy contrary standing in the liberal-arts curriculum. Hayek’s work in economics has a fair presence in that field, and his social writings reach libertarians in the business school, but in the humanities and most of the social sciences he doesn’t even exist. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, a week didn’t pass without Foucault igniting discussion, but I can’t remember hearing Hayek’s name. In those heady days of politically framed cultural criticism, academic intellectuals formed a vanguard of cosmopolitan insight and ideological unmasking (so they said), but their range of reference fell short.


Bauerlein concludes that “it would be healthy for everyone if the academic curriculum broadened its scope, if the lineage of conservatism were consolidated into a respectable course of study — that is, if Hayek won one-tenth the attention that Foucault receives.” He imagines such a course in conservative thought would build up from Burke and Tocqueville to such contemporary luminaries as Harvey Mansfield (author of much-derided book about manliness), cultural-literacy dogmatist E.D. Hirsch, and Dinesh D’Sousa, whose most recent book blames the “cultural left” for 9/11. Wow, the promise of such a course is almost enough to make me wish I was a graduate student again. (Not really.) When I was in school, my sense was that English department conservatives wanted to teach literary appreciation courses in the established classics and couldn’t fathom why students wouldn’t want a warm bath in the luxuriance of the great works. These people were against ideas generally (and wouldn’t have ever even considered the possibility of praxis) and preferred subjective pronouncements about aesthetic quality backed up by tradition. The entire profession of literature studies for them seemed to be about deciding which works were “great.” This led me to think aesthetics themselves were a conservative conspiracy (a view which Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic did much to foster).


But a familiarity with philosophical underpinnings of modern capitalism—via classical economists Adam Smith and Ricardo and more recent apologists like Milton Friedman—to balance the Marxist critiques that often are introduced in literary theory and cultural studies classes would probably be a good thing. It’s no good citing Marxist theory without understanding which parts of it are generally held by all credible economists to be bunk. And I think that commercialism and the logic of business has a lot more to do with literary developments than the various romantic mystifications of genius and aesthetic innovation.


Anyway, I had been wondering what the trojan horse might be for smuggling Hayek into cultural studies programs. This essay is a start: Reason’s blog points readers to this article by Paul Cantor, which applies Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order to television-show development and exemplifies what Hayekian literary studies might look like. (Obviously I’ll have my eye out for the forthcoming Literature and Economics: Studies in Spontaneous Order, which Cantor co-edited with Steven Cox as well.) Cantor asserts that falling back on spontaneous order is a good way of skirting the all-too-common (I do it all the time) logical inanity of attributing agency to art works that don’t lend themselves to the kind of close reading that ascribes authorial intention to every minute choice—things like TV shows and Shakespeare’s plays, since these were likely shaped in performance and written down later. Spontaneous order can be seen as variation on the Romantic (and New Critical) ideal of organic form, which evolves dialectically in regard to content so that they suit each other perfectly. And better yet, this view demotes the lone genius working in opposition to society and replaces him with a celebration of collaboration, of art-making as not a mystical process reserved for special people (rich, elite, overeducated) but as a quotidian process of ordinary people pooling and specializing their talents. “The idea of spontaneous order always seems counterintuitive to us; as human beings we evidently are conditioned to attribute order to an individual orderer. That is why the ideas of both Smith and Darwin (not to mention Hayek) encountered so much initial resistance and are rejected to this day by many people. But if one recognizes the various kinds of feedback mechanisms at work in popular culture, one begins to see that it is possible for it to lack a centrally ordering agent and yet be self-regulating and self-perfecting.” It’s the last part that likely causes the most trouble—not only are we reluctant to grant agency to the workings of an unmanaged system, but we are unwilling to accept that as the best of all possible results on account of there being no self-interest director (or state apparatchik) orchestrating it all. And feedback loops and spontaneous orderings often yield nonoptimal results—American Idol, for instance. But yet it may be nonoptimal only to my elitist aesthetic. Cantor cites this cautionary advice from literary critic Franco Moretti: “If it is perverse to believe that the market always rewards the better solution, it is just as perverse to believe that it always rewards the worse one!” Actually there is nothing perverse about such a belief: Disdaining what’s popular (and what popular taste has shaped via the market) is a sure way of protecting the power that derives from your intellectual capital—you believe that judging what is best requires that special training that you, fortunately enough, have managed to acquire. Aesthetics are a disguised way of exercising arbitrary power, and markets thus seem democratic because they democratize the aesthetic, or make it something collectively decided. But the market is no panacea; it’s distorted by the different advantages (more money, political capital) participants bring to it. You must have the capital (the connections, the money, etc) to get your TV show made before spontaneous order can begin to perfect it, and that capital already embeds decisions that have nothing to do with what might have been spontaneously demanded. In other words, we still fight over control of where to fix the starting points and parameters within which market processes, creative and liberating as they may be, will work.


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Tuesday, Jan 2, 2007


While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at Christmas; Naughty and Nice up and including yesterday’s unusual take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. As we prepare to unveil a few new features for 2007’s version of the blog, this is an excellent chance to see where we’ve been in the last five months. Thankfully, the road ahead is looking even more remarkable. Enjoy!


Naughty and Nice: The Top 10 Christmas Movies of All Time


The Top 10 Criterion Releases of 2006


The Top 10 Films of 2006 That You’ve Never Heard Of


The 10 Worst Films of 2006


The 10 Worst DVDs of 2006


The 10 Best Films of 2006


The 10 Best DVDs of 2006


 


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Tuesday, Jan 2, 2007

This morning on the train I unfolded my Wall Street Journal and suddenly felt like the Amazing Colossal Man, as the paper had suddenly shunk down to mini size to become to the old WSJ what Teen Vogue is to Vogue. My first thought was optimistic: This means less space for the editorial page! But then I became disoriented, as I tried to find and read Justin Lahart’s “Ahead of the Tape” column without having to go below the fold or spill my coffee on the unsuspecting rider to my right. It couldn’t be done. Everything seems to be in longer narrow columns. Gone also were the left-column previews of the Marketplace and Personal Journal sections that used to summarize all that was within—again my desire to consume the paper without actually opening it was foiled. And what is this new body-copy font? (Turns out it’s a custom font called Exchange, by Hoefler and Frere-Jones, alleged to be designed for the digital age.) And I think I even spotted a sans serif font in the mix.


Things were happening too fast. All that was solid seemed to be melting into air. So for mollification, I consulted the special “Reader’s Guide” insert, which features a triumphalist rundown of what’s happened that somehow fails to note, amid all the celebrating over how much easier the paper will be to use and how much more forward-looking it’s going to be, how much less space and less information the paper suddenly has. Theoretically lost space will be gained by the jettisoning of the stock-price listings that used to occupy most of section C. In its place we get expanded arts and leisure coverage (which as amusing as it can be, is still what I came to the WSJ to escape) and more infographics and summary boxes. In an attempt to purge the editorial page of all sane voices, the letters from readers have been exiled to section B. Most of these features do make the paper feel more accessible, but they give me more incentive not to read—if there’s a little summary, I’ll look at that and spoil my appetite for the rest of the article. I preferred to do my own summarizing by scanning the article for topic sentences. Now if I’m interested in an article, I have to resist the centripital pull to the summary floating in the center of the text that will bias my view of the story’s significance.


The editors have also rolled out a new slug, “The Business of Life,” to cover the paper’s occasional service pieces, and to show readers “how developments in the industries we cover throughout the paper affect your choices as a consumer.” This is a truly depressing development. The main pleasure of reading the WSJ is that it doesn’t seem to presume you are a consumer, passively responding to the world’s changes, interacting with that world only through shopping. The paper instead encourages the fantasy of control through business minutia and data, suggesting that our reaction to information could be something other than merely personal, that our goal in reading could be something other than mere entertainment. The paper often makes readers feel like the consumers are “them” and that you are instead among the productive forces shaping the world “they” are confined in.


Consequently, it feels like distinctly adult reading to me, purged of all frivolity and feigned enthusiasm and hype—it trusts you to generate your own excitement in relationship to the information. But this “Business of Life” seems like surrender of that high ground, in response, the editors allege, to the incessant demands of readers for more help in making personal decisions. Of course when asked, readers will request more advice in the abstract—in the abstract all advice is good and useful and specifically attuned to whatever problems a reader may imagine having in the future. In practice, advice can be normalizing, pedantic, generating insecurity about the decision you thought you had already settled. This new emphasis on personal advice seems a bit paternalistic—what happened to “free people and free markets”? Are the shoppers now no longer “they” but “we”? This may be a more accurate of our true situation, more consumers than producers and never strictly one or the other, but still it undermines the paper’s singular ethos, that fantasia of being above the muddle of identity-building through shopping to contemplate the broader consequences of political decisions and shifting economic indicators, that some of we consumers sought to escape to.


By presenting only news of significance to business interests, the WSJ seemed to purify the world, repdroduce it in a format made managable by the assumption that the pursuit of profit could ultimately organize and prioritize it all and make it all comprehensible from a fairly straightforward point of view. But once other personal motives are admitted, that purity is lost, and the contradictions between seeking corporate profit, social recognition and personal security simultaneously become more apparent and troubling. By folding more lifestyle elements into the paper, the editors likely hope to be adding value, and making the paper more of a one-stop publication for a reader’s daily information needs. But instead of making the paper feel more complete, the editors risk undermining the hermetic austerity it once had that fostered the businessperson’s necessary illusion, that public and private life could be walled off from each other.


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Monday, Jan 1, 2007


Double takes are perfectly acceptable. Indeed, this is not your run of the mill Best of list. Look around the web (or in any of the still viable print publications) and it’s a safe bet that many, if not all, of these unusual titles fail to make the Top 10 grade. As a matter of fact, you could probably look from #11 to #100 and not find a single one mentioned. The reason why remains rather simplistic. SE&L is not overly impressed with pure technical merits. A stellar picture and perfect surround sound might be amazing, but when wrapped around the latest lame-ass Hollywood hack job, who gives a digital dung heap? No, what we like is quality – in presentation, in packaging AND in product. That’s why our 2006 tally of the best the home theater medium has to offer is just a wee bit…eclectic. We’d rather celebrate the unknown film in a barebones version than a tricked out work of limited likeability.


Truth be told, this list could be a lot bigger. As sales slack off and marketers grow manic over the lack of blockbuster sales, the smaller companies in the distribution game – Troma, Synapse, Subversive and Anchor Bay – have gone out of their way to track down obscure entries, flesh them out with an amazing array of contextual content, and provide them at a price that both aficionado and novice can support. Sure, some big league studio releases turn up here, but you probably won’t recognize the films featured. That’s the great thing about DVD – within its practical and portable format, a wealth of cinematic knowledge and appreciation can be gained. So get out your guidebook and be prepared to jot down a few of these filmic travels for future reference. After you’ve finished with that regular Tinsel Town treat, you can give one of these experimental excursions a try. You won’t be disappointed:


1. Tromeo and Juliet: 10th Anniversary Edition
Marking the second DVD go-round for this beloved Troma title, this double dip is still a significant improvement over the original digital presentation. As before, the Bard’s basic story of star-crossed lovers is fused with a scatological punk rock sensibility to create the first ever gross out version of a Shakespeare play. Perhaps more amazing than the awkward performances, bizarre-world found locations, plentiful gore, and abundant nudity is the number of unknown actors and crewmembers who went on to become famous fixtures in both Hollywood and the Indie film scene. Along with the typical Kaufman crew, screenwriter James Gunn (Scooby-Doo, Dawn of the Dead) Will Keenan (Operation Midnight Climax) and current reigning b-movie scream queen Debbie Rochon all found celebrity inside this insane iambic pentameter.


2. Street Trash: Special Two Disc Meltdown Edition
It is, perhaps, the most unlikely subject matter for a horror film ever devised. A group of homeless winos, led by an ex-Vietnam vet who takes his frequent homicidal flashbacks out on the surrounding populace, begin drinking a new cheap hooch that’s hitting the street. Unfortunately, one of Tenafly Viper’s liquor-laced drawbacks is the unfortunate side effect of personal putrescence. That’s right, one sip and you start to ‘bleed’ out in a multi-colored array of bodily fluids. A masterpiece made by fright film fans for fright film fans, Trash has long been unavailable on DVD. Last year, Synapse Films promised a new, fully tricked out edition, and they weren’t lying. This is, hands down, one of the best movies of the late ‘80s, given a proud near perfect post-millennial package.


3. Christmas Evil
Overlooked upon initial release, Lewis Jackson’s You Better Watch Out is actually a minor masterpiece. Audiences were stunned when they learned that this holiday horror film – later re-titled with the far more lurid Christmas Evil label – featured an unstable man who took the notion of “playing” Santa to uncomfortable extremes. The seedy subtext involving children and random carnage made even the most magnanimous macabre fan a tad queasy. Too bad, since their ready dismissal prevented them from appreciating a truly remarkable movie. More a character study than a standard slice and dice, Jackson’s journey into the mind of a morally misguided man is an unusual artistic triumph. Besides, it’s John Waters’ favorite holiday film. You can’t ask for a better vote of creative confidence than that.


4. Cemetery Man
Cemetery Man is a most unusual horror film. Actually it’s not really a horror film at all. Certainly, it has nods to the normal macabre ideals—zombies and murders and the foul stench of death. Still, this is not really a chiller. Instead, it’s a thriller, in the most soul-uplifting definition of the word. It is a movie so bafflingly beautiful that it argues for its acceptance as art. Anyone coming to this movie hoping to continue their fascination with flesh-eating corpses will have to get their Romero/Fulci fill elsewhere. In the hands of the amazing Michele Soavi, this is poetry, cinema as a stunning visual feast. It remains one of the most important fantasy films ever made, one that shows the true power inherent in thoughts and imagery.


5. The Green Pastures
The Green Pastures is a misunderstood movie, but not like Song of the South is misunderstood. Disney’s dilemma remains that, no matter how personable Uncle Remus is as a character, he is still subjugated by a segregated South. No such distinction exists in The Green Pastures - at least, not outwardly. This is a fantasy world composed completely of black people—from the biblical characters to the individuals spinning the yarn. Made in Hollywood, notorious for its mesegenistic view of minorities, one can read all manner of sinister significance in this portrayal. But there is also a strong undercurrent of grace and devotion that constantly countermands the cruelty. It delivers the film and its prejudicial facets out of the realm of repugnance into a region both sublime and subjective.


6. Ganja and Hess
Call it voodoo done right or exploitation gone artsy, but true aficionados find this relatively unknown horror film hard to forget. Playwright Bill Gunn had high hopes for his literate look at vampirism and ancient curses. Sadly, after a less than impressive Big Apple play date, distributors eviscerated Gunn’s original cut and re-released it as Blood Couple. Long out of print, Image Entertainment gets substantial genre props for revisiting Gunn’s version, including the incorporation of additional footage not found in other DVD versions. With a wealth of supplemental information, including commentaries and making-of documentaries, this presentation practically revives Ganja and Hess to its prerelease glory. With all manner of movie macabre clogging the airwaves and retail outlets, this is one unknown quantity worth checking out.


7. The Loved One
Back in 1965, a movie focusing on death in such a callous, cold-hearted manner, vilifying religion with hints of unethical behavior and business-oriented obsessions, and tweaking artists, the English, the Hollywood studio system, and freaked-out fey momma’s boys, was scandalous stuff. Able to make any movie he wanted after Tom Jones’ Oscar wins, British bad boy Tony Richardson was itching to bring Evelyn Waugh’s mortuary satire to the silver screen. Mimicking fellow auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (borrowing Strangelove‘s look and placing comedic star, Jonathan Winters, in a diabolical dual role) and Orson Welles (playing with depth of field and focus), he took pot shots at several “isms”—racism, materialism, populism, commercialism—creating a comic masterwork more or less unseen until this DVD release – 41 years later.


8. The Addams Family Volume 1
It goes without saying that The Addams Family is a product of its time. Viewed some 40 years later, the show is nothing short of luminous. It is superbly cast, brilliantly acted, and rebellious to a fault. What was weird and eccentric in 1964 is now nice and normal, the family’s main mantra of individualism and being true to oneself a coveted current cultural directive. It is easy to see what ‘60s audiences eventually dismissed about this wonderfully inventive comedy. The Addamses were radicals, rocking the boat of suburban conformity with their love of all things dark and dour. Thanks to MGM, and their initial DVD offering of the original black and white episodes, we can experience just how immensely entertaining this sadly underrated series actually is.


9. Wonder Showzen: Season 1 & 2
At one time, Wonder Showzen was the new “it” phenomenon – a corrupted kid-vid concept brilliantly realized and abstractly insane. It was Pee Wee’s Playhouse if that magnificent man-child Paul Reubens’ porn store persona had run the show, a sensationally sick perversion turned into a proto-pedophilic playtime. After a brilliant first season, some feel that creators Vernon Chatman and Johnny Lee went overboard in series two with their unabashedly political take on Hee Haw, Horse Apples. But the fact is that no other recent series has taken on the sacred cows and untouchable taboos of our pro-child society as astutely and caustically as this definitive dada-esque satire. Get both DVD sets now before some state wises up and bans this genuine genius effort all together.


10. Dust Devil: The Final Cut
In 1990, Richard Stanley’s Hardware was a heralded event in genre cinema. It had all the trappings of a classic. However, it was merely a minor success, earning little more than a considered cult following among rapid fright fans. As a result, Stanley found it difficult to get his next film off the ground; the metaphysical spree slaughter South African epic Dust Devil. Miramax promised all kinds of support, but after seeing a work print, they chopped it up and dumped it onto home video. There, it died a completely undeserving death. Thanks to an amazing new box set from Subversive Cinema, we finally get a chance to see Stanley’s visionary work, as well as a chance to visit his career since the entire Devil debacle.


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Monday, Jan 1, 2007

Editors—"Camera (Rubber Bullets Remix)"
Editors—"All Sparks (Phones Remix)"
From Remixed on iTunes


According to PopMatters’ own Michael Lomas, Editors’ The Back Room “is an assured debut album from a promising band. Greatness, for the moment, might elude them, but Editors are the real deal. The spiky guitars and swirling synth textures that make up this record are hardly visionary, but when it’s all done as effortlessly as this, it sure is exciting. Touching on desolate themes of loss and mortality and shooting them through with a sparky, almost hopeful abandon, the songs Editors have given us here are definitely worth listening to.”  Now, Editors have returned with an iTunes-released EP that gathers four tracks from The Back Room as remixed by various artists.


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