Why Might They Be Giants?

continued from yesterday

They Might Be Giants holds a special place in my heart for two reasons.  First, it’s a meta-detective story about the multiplicity of signs and clues in our world.  In some ways, it has filmic resonance with The Crying of Lot 49, infusing the world with wondrous mystery, reading clues from garbage and random notes.  It also trades in the notion that madmen have a keen insight on the world, a vision of truth that the rest of us cannot see.  The crucial sequence comes from the middle of the film, in which Holmes and Watson discuss the mad quests of literature, referring not just to Holmes and Moriarty, but also to Don Quixote and the windmills at which he tilted.

Dr. Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote.  You think that everything is something else.

Holmes: He had a point.  Of course he carried it a bit too far, that’s all.  He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane.  But, thinking that they might be? All the best minds used to think that the world was flat.  But what if it isn’t?  It might be round?  And bread mold might be medicine.  If we never looked at things and thought about what they might be, why, we’d still be out in the tall grasses with the apes. (See the video below, around :40 seconds.)

The ambiguity of the film’s title is part of what makes it intriguing.  Are Holmes and Watson pursuing phantoms through the streets of New York, or might there be something there — by the end you want his quest to be true, and Watson does too.


But more importantly, one of my favorite bands, They Might Be Giants has taken this film’s name as its own.  Which leads us to ask what they might mean by this title.  Are Jon and John like Holmes and Watson, chasing meaning in the metropolis, hoping to find deeper truth in the semiotic haze of the urban landscape, or are they like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills that might be giants, or are John and Jon the windmills who might be giants themselves?  I think it’s the last, and we the audience are Holmes and Watson, chasing meaningless (and sometimes meaningful) signifiers through the musical landscape these men have woven?

They Might Be Giants driving
Hang on ... hang on... tighter

Complicating this question even more is the strange case of the eponymous song from TMBG’s most famous album, Flood.  Here are some of the lyrics:

Hang on
Hang on tight

They might be giants (boy)
They might be giants
They might be rain
They might be heat
They might be frying up a stalk of wheat

They might be brain
They might be washed
They might be Dr. Spock’s back-up band
To make the merry-go-round go faster
So that everyone needs to hang on tighter
Just to keep from being thrown to the wolves

They might be bald
They might be snow
They might be something else in the snow

They might be fake
They might be lies
They might be big, big, fake, fake lies

Tabloid footprints in your hair
Tabloid footprints everywhere
We can’t be silent
‘Cause they might be giants
And what are we going to do unless they are

I’ve cut many of the repetitions of the title phrase and the deep “BOY” which sounds more like “Bow-eye.”  But what can we do with these lyrics?  The last line seems most apt, implying that the quest must be joined regardless, and that hope lies in the madness of hoping some of the objects of that quest are, indeed, giants.

Oh, and Wikipedia says this:

A common misconception is that the name of the band is a reference to themselves and an allusion to future success. In an interview John Flansburgh said (paraphrasing) that the words “they might be giants” are just a very outward-looking forward thing which they liked. He clarified this in the documentary movie Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) by explaining that the name refers to the outside world of possibilities that they saw as a fledgling band. In an earlier radio interview, John Linnell described the phrase as “something very paranoid sounding”.

…you were right.

To those of you (and there are several) who told me that Cabin in the Woods was right up my alley…

Cabin in the Woods
Cabin in the Woods

It’s a great movie.  Horror, yes, but something else as well.  Nothing more to say about it here.

2012-04-29 Tweets

  • #DinnerWithA3YearOld after long attempt to get Finn to eat, I say, “Fine, just take your plate into the kitchen.” He replies, “It’s a bowl.” #
  • I want to win a pair of tix to see @RealGipsyKings at @ChicagoTheatre on 4/27! #Tweet4Tix #
  • Note to self via Internet: after reading on @boingboing about Klout, plan to write a blog post about it. Wonder what that’ll do to my score. #
  • BBC’s Peep Show: “Want to go to a party? No thanks. I won’t experience any hurt at home with my spaghetti carbonara and DAS BOOT.” #
  • Overheard in the hallway: “So, do you have something to tell me about your second essay?” #
  • @zachwhalen @briancroxall @rogerwhitson I used to be always-already nostalgic for irony in self-aware tweets about my personal history. in reply to zachwhalen #
  • @easyrhetor effective if their kids/grandkids are doing the shopping. in reply to easyrhetor #
  • Any evolutionary scientists out there who can explain why we evolved to make three-year-olds perfectly adapted to push parents’ buttons? #
  • Great post from John Walter on World IP day. “http://ow.ly/1Likt5 #
  • “@lizzwinstead: I need a Porgy and Bess hook up.” The canon holds no cooler drug dealer than The Sportin’ Life. #
  • Nick Park’s “Pirates! In an adventure with scientists” cut Darwin, science from American ads and title. For shame. http://t.co/VKiQoeSd #
  • @cstross does it again, this time explains the ebook DRM market http://t.co/SZCY3eRL #
  • S Fry: “Gibberish imitates sounds of our biological neighbors, other primates further down the Evolutionary chain. That’s right: Americans.” #
  • Looking out the window at Dupage cty kids museum, thought “the weather’s getting ugly.” Then realized the windows are tinted. #

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Costumes, gunfire, and policemen, oh my!

They Might Be Giants and 21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants is a 1971 existential comedy about a wealthy former judge who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes and the psychiatrist–Dr. Watson–being prodded to put him away by the judge’s greedy brother.  But when the psychiatrist meets him, she discovers more to Holmes than first met the eye, namely, that he may understand the world better than she does.  21 Jump Street is a modern remake comedy about two inexperienced and young-looking police officers who get sent undercover in high school to bust a drug ring.

I have a few notes about this as a double-review, but I also have a little to say about each film on its own:

  • Both films depict buddy relationships and crime solving, shifting the dynamic so that the person who is confident at one point becomes the person who needs help at other points.  In They Might Be Giants, Holmes proceeds with confidence that gets him into all sorts of trouble, and comes to realize he needs Dr. Watson’s restraining hand and support.  In 21 Jump Street, the two officers complement one another, so when they begin fighting, they lose that essential element that made them good partners.
  • If you’re a film buff, you’ll recognize many of the actors with cameos in the films.  21 Jump Street manages to get cameos of most of the original television show as well as brief appearances from Nick Offerman, Ellie Kemper, Chris Parnell, Rob Riggle, Ice T, and Jake M. Johnson (Nick from The New Girl).  They Might Be Giants is full of 1971-era character actors, including Jack Gilford (Cocoon), Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster), Rue McLanahan (Blanche from The Golden Girls), M. Emmet Walsh (every Cohen Brothers movie until he died), Paul Benedict (The Jeffersons, This is Spinal Tap – “I am the way God made me, sir.”), F. Murray Abraham, Eugene Roche (Webster, every police comedy made before 1990), and James Tolkan (the principal in Back to the Future).  It’s a big cast.
  • Neither film’s ending is very plausible, but both are pretty satisfying.  I don’t want to say much more on the subject for risk of spoiling it.
  • Both films build many jokes on the viewer’s knowledge of their source texts.  To understand what’s going on in They Might Be Giants, you must know the Holmes mythology and stories.  His obsession with Moriarty plays throughout the film.  Similarly, 21 Jump Street has a bunch of jokes that work much better if you watched the original show.  Jenny and I watched the first two-part pilot and I was very happy that we did.  I imagine the parody is even more rich if you watched most of the series.  In looking up the show later, however, I discovered that the captain in the pilot is different from the captain in the main series.  Oops.
  • Each film was missing something I would have liked to see.  In They Might Be Giants, I would have enjoyed seeing more jokes, references, or elements that fill in back story on songs by the rock/pop group with the same name (about which you can read more tomorrow).  In 21 Jump Street, the end of each pilot episode featured a David Lynchian sequence with a woman’s hand turning the pages of a year book.  Her nails are hot pink and too long by half, and the first few chords of the 21JS theme song sound an awful lot like the mournful soap opera music Lynch used on Twin Peaks.  There’s a strange sequence at the end of the movie that would have been perfect to slip this into.  Alas, it was not there.

Overall, 21 Jump Street is an entertaining cop version of Never Been Kissed, with a slight shift in the experience.  In the Drew Barrymore vehicle, the character discovers that high school is just as it always has been, and she’s just as clueless.  In 21 Jump Street, a crucial shift seems to have occurred in which jocks no longer hold rein over the school — instead it’s the crunchy granola hippies who rule the roost.  This makes Jonah Hill’s character the ‘cool’ guy and knocks Chaning Tatum’s character on his ear, since all he ever had was being tough and cool, and neither applies in the 2012 high school.  It’s a nice twist on an old story.  I’ll post more about They Might Be Giants tomorrow.

Facepalm: three Internet burps from this week

Three different times I found myself wallowing in anguish while reading an Internet news story.  Ready for the ride?

1. Klout – a Wired news story about the controversial website (via BoingBoing)

"Wade" cc-licensed by MrGiles
"Wade" cc-licensed by MrGiles

Klout is a social media metric that measures how influential you are and gives you a score between 1 and 100.  The higher your score, the more people you influence.  Apparently, there are companies and hotels and stuff that have started giving perks to people with high Klout scores.  On one hand, this is the intended benefit of the company, on the other hand it feels like anti-democratic dirty pool.  Some people get to cut to the front of the line because they’re more influential? What the fuck?

It made me think of the Chicago Tribune news stories about the recent scandal at the University of Illinois where it turned out that knowing someone important got you special treatment in the admissions process.  The overall effect of the scandal was huge, but it mostly happened because the geniuses (and I don’t mean that sarcastically at all, I love that they did this) in admissions created a special track for clout applications.  So there were literally records of people who got special treatment and why.  This is, of course, the above board way to do it — if your boss is telling you to give the congressman’s neighbor’s kid a special review, you do so, but you document the heck out of it.

I hope that companies using Klout to give perks to some customers are exposed and punished by the marketplace for doing so.

2. CISPA – Congress votes on CISPA a day early and erases the Fourth Amendment for the Internet.

Much of what I read makes me think this is a political move that stands hardly any chance of actually becoming law, but it still makes me absolutely goddamn furious.  Go read about it, and weep for our lost freedoms.  What I don’t understand is why so many Republicans would support this bill — I thought they were about less government, about Freedom, goddamn it.

It also makes me mad that it was rushed through with quick major ammendments at the last minute.  This isn’t what democracy is about.  This isn’t the public, fair debate of ideas aimed at making our country a better place.  At best, it’s a wrong-headed and dangerous political game of chicken designed to make one party (or the other) look bad.  At worst, it’s another reduction of the potential for individual liberty in the digital age taken by people who have power and don’t understands its implications.

3. Brogrammers – “Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem”

The Mother Jones story about the rising visible sexism and Frat-house culture infecting recent tech startups doesn’t really point out anything new about the kinds of places twentysomething men assemble when left to their own devices.  But it does raise a disturbing ripple effect that these sorts of myopic sexist idiots have on the wider culture of geekdom.  Fortunately, the Internet seems to be smacking back pretty hard at these Mooks (to use Douglas Rushkoff’s term from Merchants of Cool), but not hard enough for my taste.

– – –

On the upside, the Internet giveth as well as taketh away. My favorite thing about the Klout article, though, was its last paragraph, which encapsulates the hope I have for the wonderful Internet.  Seth Stevens writes:

Over time, I found my eyes drifting to tweets from folks with the lowest Klout scores. They talked about things nobody else was talking about. Sitcoms in Haiti. Quirky museum exhibits. Strange movie-theater lobby cards from the 1970s. The un-Kloutiest’s thoughts, jokes, and bubbles of honest emotion felt rawer, more authentic, and blissfully oblivious to the herd. Like unloved TV shows, these people had low Nielsen ratings—no brand would ever bother to advertise on their channels. And yet, these were the people I paid the most attention to. They were unique and genuine. That may not matter to marketers, and it may not win them much Klout. But it makes them a lot more interesting.

The Wave

The Wave
The Wave

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean
by Susan Casey, narrated by Kristen Potter

For years, sailors have told tales of freak waves, three or four times the size of the surrounding waters.  Dozens of ships disappear each year, often swamped without a sound or any warning by these freak waves.  In The Wave, Casey chronicles two groups of people who pursue and study these waves — ocean scientists who want to understand the physics that create these strange waves, and big wave surfers who want to understand the core of their being by riding the biggest waves they can.  A few thoughts:

  • Casey is a remarkable writer, deft in telling the stories of surfers and the ideas of scientists.  She deploys an endless variety of descriptive adjectives and powerful images as she describes wave after wave after wave.  She knows just the right balance to make between explanation and excitement, between description and action.
  • While I found the science part of the book interesting and the shipwreck/ shipping stories compelling, the tales of surfers are both the core of the book and the most interesting part.  Casey paints a strong picture of her main subject,  Laird Hamilton, an early pioneer of tow-surfing (the process of being flung onto fast-moving gigantic waves by a jet ski) who believes more in the philosophy of big wave surfing than the commercial practice the industry has become.
  • The utter destructive power of the freak waves Casey describes makes the prospect of sea travel absolutely frightening.  When ships encounter these freak waves, they are overwhelmed and often sink with little or no warning or chance for lifeboats.  Most distressingly, many of the ships are far past their sell-by date, being crewed by substandard captains and third-world crews.   She also writes in very compelling–and terrifying–ways about the grim prospect of uber-tsunamis that threaten the coasts.  These waves, which occur so rarely as to be unheard of by anyone NOT taking core samples, will sweep dozens of miles inland, scouring the ground.  And there are some very populated places that are due.
  • In Casey’s conversations with wave scientists, she regularly asked about whether we’re seeing changes in the oceans due to climate change.  Pretty much every one of the scientists she spoke to hesitated–you could sense their gunshy language in talking to a writer about this–and then said that, yes, climate change is disrupting the oceans.  Yes, the waves are getting bigger.
  • I listened to The Wave as an audio book, so when I first heard about Hamilton’s big-wave method, I thought the term for it was toe surfing, referring somehow to the way one rides the board in big waves, or something.  Casey quickly explains that the only way for a surfer to get moving fast enough to keep the pace of a big wave is to be towed by a jet-ski and launched onto the wave.  Thus, it became clear to me that it was tow-surfing, not toe surfing.  Despite this realization, I still heard toe surfing for most of the book.

As with Devil’s Teeth, Casey does a great job telling a complex tale involving science, adventure, and the ocean.  It’s a solid read, well worth a listen.


The other one

This guy keeps competing with me on Google, and shows up in my narcissistic Google alerts.  Check it, the comedian Brendan Riley:


Salvador Dali, interior decorator

Modern art makes me wonder what those artists were smokin
Modern art makes me wonder what those artists were smokin'

In which I corrupt the youth … again

"Zombiefied" by Scabeater, cc-licensed

Another in my series of email interviews with high schoolers working on papers.  These are my responses to questions from a sophomore in Washington state (questions in italics).

1. What is it about zombies that makes them important or relevant enough to teach a college course on them?

In general, I believe that the study of popular culture helps us think about who we are, how we want to be, and where we came from.  As one of three or four cornerstone monsters in American horror films, zombies inhabit many of the stories we tell one another.  They’re used as a metaphor for being mindless, being dead, being directionless, and so on.  They’re also very popular.  Each of these aspects makes them interesting to study.

In very broad strokes, the humanities helps cultivate deep thinking and ethics–essential skills in the volatile marketplace of the 21st century.  It’s diversity of thought and a wide range of ideas that inoculate against narrow thinking.  I firmly believe the study of popular culture, texts people care about, makes it easier to connect people with these grand ideas and traditions.

2. What does your class consist of?

The class explores the history and depiction of zombies in popular media over the last century.  We take a three-track approach, studying the Haitian voodoo mythology and its presence in Hollywood films from the 30s through the 60s, the “Romero” zombies most people think of when they hear the term, and the ‘philosophical’ zombie, an idea from Philosophy that helps us think about the mind/body problem.  In a broad sense, students in the course learn about why popular culture is important, and how studying it helps us learn more about ourselves.
3. Zombies are often said to carry a message with them when featured in a story. Do zombies carry a message or deeper meaning for you?

Zombies makes a particularly interesting subject because they represent many things we fear: death, disease, mob mentality, chaos.  I tend to see zombies as a way for us to explore the question of what it means to be human.  But at the same time, zombies have been used as vectors for stories about environmentalism, about racism, even about consumer society.  In many of these cases, the films warn about how our own perspectives or actions will separate us from our humanity.
4. Where do you think today’s zombies are going? Will their opportunities in popular culture be exhausted?

Like all genres and sub-genres, zombies will wax and wane in popularity.  The recent rise of fast zombies and the emergence of mainstream zombie stories like THE WALKING DEAD has allowed for the monster to step up to the main stage alongside vampires and werewolves.   I’m sure we will see zombies fall out of favor again, but I don’t see them ever going away.
5. There are people today who are prepared for a zombie apocalypse. Are you one of them? Do you think that such an obsession with zombies is healthy?

In my experience, most people who are prepared for the “zombie apocalypse” are actually preparing for any generic widespread catastrophe.  As the CDC itself said in a recent pamphlet, to be prepared for the zombie apocalypse is to be prepared for anything. Along those lines, making preparations for disaster and learning survival skills cannot be a bad thing.  At the same time, worrying very much about how to fight the walking dead seems like misplaced priorities to me.  I think energy used preparing for defending one’s house against a horde of corpses would be better spend on altruistic community building.
6. What would you do in a zombie apocalypse?

Probably die trying to save my children.

Halting State

Halting State (US)
Halting State (US)

By Charles Stross

I have to wonder, now, whether I encountered some brief discussion of this novel a couple years ago (probably on BoingBoing) and then forgot about it, or if the zeitgeist of the era just prompted me to follow the same path that Charles Stross had already cleared so cleverly.  For the last couple years, in classes and other places, I’ve been saying it would be a great story premise to have an alternate reality game in which players run errands or do various blind work in order to play the game, all the while unaware that they’re actually working for real world forces using the ARG to get unwitting people to do their bidding.  Turns out it is a great story premise, only Stross has already written it.

The ARG manipulation thing is but one of several narrative threads in Stross’ novel, Halting State.  We also have a robbery in an MMORPG that has real-world consequences, and for-keeps office politics reminiscent of the third story in The Atrocity ArchivesStross tells the story through three characters, Sue, a Sargent in the Edinburgh police department, Elaine, a forensic accountant gamer, and Jack, a slacker hacker with training in the Alternate Reality games that play such a big role in the near-future society of Scotland.  A few thoughts:

  • Stross writes in a not-too-disconcerting second person, putting you in the role of the chapter’s subject.  I suppose this emphasizes the gaming aspect of the story, but ultimately it gets in the way, for my money.
  • The story takes place mostly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, both of which Stross describes as ancient cities bristling with the new.  It works very well.  I was also pleased to come across the part in the book where the characters visit a cafe built in an old castle/building with thick walls and no wireless signal.  I remember reading on Stross’ blog about how, a month before the book was due to be published, he visited this real place and found that finally it had been penetrated by wireless.  He’s since documented other ways his book has become obsolete ahead of schedule.  (with spoilers, obviously.)
  • My favorite innovation are AR glasses, something everyone wears that overlays a kind of Google Maps or other layout on top of the world you’re playing.  We’re already moving toward this with GPS and direction-enabled phone apps that overlay labels on phone images.  We just need to move those screens up to glasses and we’re there.
  • Stross’ description of the precarious state the international Internet substructure is gives me the heebie jeebies.  While we’re certainly under the environmental Sword of Damocles, I’d preferred not to think of the ways we’ve made ourselves vulnerable by building such complex technologies into the heart of our society.  We won’t need to get into life-support chairs to find ourselves in a “The Machine Stops” situation.
  • I also like the “life recording” of all on-duty police officers at all times.  While there should be adequate precautions in place to keep officers from suffering unduly under this kind of surveillance, the unreliability of witness testimony means we should implement this as fast as we possibly can.
  • I can’t say I like the US cover all that much.  The UK cover is far better.
Halting State (UK)
Halting State (UK)

A solid book, entertaining and well-written.  I enjoyed it quite a bit–about the same as The Atrocity Archives, but not as much as Singularity Sky or Accelerando.

2012-04-22 Tweets

  • Back from #pcaaca on a trip to the arboretum. Looks like rain might cut it short. Damn you, Mother Nature! #
  • Have I mentioned that I love to eat at chicken and waffles? #
  • Finn says to Grandma re 'Hush Little Baby' — "I wish I could sing that to you when you are little." #kids #cute #lullabies #
  • Finn sings "Home on the Range" to us, says "Seldom is heard, a susquoragioning word, and the skies are not cloudy all DAY!." #lullabies #
  • @wisebeck "Re: Rhetoric of Neanderthals" That Ooog, he have full bearskin tunic and big cave. Good Ethos. in reply to wisebeck #
  • Wind so strong today, I expect to see Mary Poppins float down and heckle me to go fly a kite. #gusty #
  • Yesterday it was windy, today I'm wishing I'd brought a stocking cap. 46 degrees is March weather, people. #getItTogetherWeatherGods #
  • Every day, I eject my ipod, put it in my pocket, click "play." Instead of the podcast I was listening to, it always starts "Dancing Queen." #
  • The #protip for getting your finicky three year old to eat asparagus? Creamy dijon mustard sauce. Good thinkin', Grandma! #
  • Columbo on his own marksmanship: "If I were standing on a dock, I couldn't hit the water." #oldschool #
  • Patrick McGoohan goofs on himself a bit in this episode of Columbo–he plays a spy who regularly says "Be seeing you!" #HesAManNotANumber #
  • @mozservices Sync saying "Unknown error" http://t.co/5LYHPP5B #
  • Watching History Channel Titanic special I taped last week; 90 seconds after each commercial break is summary. UGH. Enjoyable, otherwise. #
  • Rockin' the wind room at Dupage county children's museum. #
  • Lady at the museum hummed the "da da da" sequence from the Adam West Batman incorrectly and I had to work hard not to correct her. #imanerd #

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New Directions in Popular Culture Theory

The most invigorating and lively panel I attended was the Professional Development panel chaired by Bob Batchelor on Saturday morning at 11:15.  Four of us presented to a packed house, offering ideas and explorations of the current pop culture landscape and considering how Pop Culture studies and Theory could interact in the future.  Quick summaries of my co-panelists:

  • Brian Cogan spoke first, offering ten thirty-second nuggets of wisdom and prophecy about popular culture studies and the future of theory.  He reminded us that the study of Popular Culture was the study of everything, even nonPopular culture.  Cogan reminded us that Ray Browne saw the field as a kind of meaning making, the exploration of the ideas of cultural capital.  He championed our “now”ness — the fact that our field studies texts as they emerge, and thus takes a greater risk than those who wait to study texts until they’ve entered the canon.  Finally, he mentioned two Japanese words, which I’m sure I’ll spell wrong here,otaku meaning geek, and amaru meaning mutual responsibility.
  • Sarah MacFarland-Taylor spoke next, offering a critical theoretical exploration of the relationship between religious studies and popular culture studies.  She discussed how both explore the resonances of the primitive/civilized split, how Popular Culture itself operates as a kind of religion (Ed note: Echoes of Ulmer here: Orality = Religion; Literacy = Bureaucratic Government; Electracy = Entertainment), and how the classic opposition between work and play becomes upended by popular culture.
  • Then I spoke (see below)
  • Bob Batchelor closed the initial five-minute talks with a proposal for Popular Culture Theory 2.0.  Batchelor described how Browne’s original vision saw theory as a hindrance to Popular Culture, that it allowed scholars to perpetuate the elitism of the academy, that it was undemocratic.  But, Batchelor suggests, now we’ve got a moment where we can embrace some of the theoretical strategies to explicate meaning and understand our context.  He urges us to be omnidisciplinarians, a practice that has been part of Pop Culture study as Browne always envisioned it.  We should shape our writing for a global audience.

My talk:
I’ve included my PowerPoint slides below.  I’ve noted when each slide would start.  Please note: this talk was given extemporaneously from rough notes, so the content here differs slightly from what I said on 14 April.

Welcome.  I’m Brendan Riley, an Associate Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago.  My talk today is a bit of a polemic, so I apologize in advance if you were expecting something erudite.  I’ll be talking today about how Popular Culture scholars can, and must, take the lead in helping the Humanities tell its story.
  I’m drawing my talk today from a couple premises.  The first is that Higher Education is on a bubble.   I believe Higher Education is in the same situation today that Travel Agents faced in 1995.  We’re perched on the verge of a major upheaval in the way people pursue higher education: with decreasing government funding for higher ed and rising tuition costs, the nation is beginning to shudder at the debt burden we’re putting on students.
  From below, the rising tide of online education threatens the model under which we’ve been conducting education for ever.  I hate to say it, but given today’s date, this seems apt.

My goal here today is to talk about how the Humanities can do our best to be on the lifeboats if the ship goes down.

  My second starting point is that the Humanities in general has not done a very good job of telling its own story. 

In Zachary Karabel’s What’s College For?he argues that academics have a distinctly different idea about what higher education should and does do than pretty much any constituency from students and parents to senators and employers.  And worse, when anyone outside academia tries to have a conversation engaging with this question, academics often refuse to listen.

If we don’t engage in the conversation, Karabel argues, it will be held without us.

And there’s a lot to say from our perspective.  The study of culture brings to students a critical perspective far more flexible than any career-specific training they might receive.  So why do we have trouble telling this story?

  Which brings me to my title, this slide, and my central anecdote.  A friend of mine used to tell this story:

In his first semester teaching film studies, a conventional University of Florida frat-boy approached him at the end of the first class.  With a skeptical look on his face, the young man asked,

“Is this the kind of class where you teach us that JAWS is about Communism and stuff?”

For me, this anecdote is symptomatic of two larger currents in our culture:

First, it reinforces the anti-intellectual perspective that the Humanities involves a ridiculous semiotic slight of hand with little or no value to the outside world.

Second, it highlights the skepticism these same anti-intellectuals have toward the study of popular culture instead of the canon.

   It’s in solving these last two problems that Popular Culture scholars are among the best positioned to help tell the story of the Humanities in a way that will help people understand why what we do is important.

This is where Theory comes in, for Popular Culture scholarship has long been victim to the hermeneutic trap, the tendency to produce close readings without considering the import of our work beyond the walls of academe.  In the same way, the jargon-laden writing of theoretically-minded scholars suffers from a similar fate: its exclusivity stands in the way of its transportability into the larger culture.

Hence, we scholars of the everyday have an opportunity.  By writing about the practice and experience of the everyday in compelling, theoretically robust ways that also aim for an educated general reader, we can tell the story of the work we do to the people whom we serve.

   This activity falls under the umbrella, of course, of public intellectualism.  So it’s here that I join the Bob Batchelor bandwagon; I echo his call from the Ray Browne Popular Culture conference last Spring for we scholars to step out of our cloisters, to engage in public debate, to remind people why they should value what we do.

Because if we don’t tell our story, who will?

Thank you.

Puppets and Censorship

Being Elmo This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Being Elmo and This Film is Not Yet Rated

This Film is Not Yet Rated (hereafter: This Film) explores the shadowy world of the MPAA ratings board, a secretive organization that wields enormous power to shape the market future of the films under their consideration.  Being Elmo explores the shadowy world of Muppeteers, the vivacious personalities who wield enormous power to make us smile and giggle.  One of the films make you cheer for the power of entertainment, the other makes you lament at the sorry state of the industry.  A few thoughts:

  • Both films play on our emotions very well.  Being Elmo tells an inspiring story of an artist who followed his love and made it.  Kevin Clash, the man who voices perhaps the most popular Muppet this side of Kermit, grew up in working class Baltimore, where he taught himself to make and use puppets.  His ambition, modesty, and generosity is striking.  This Film, by contrast, follows the depressing story of the MPAA ratings board, a group whose ratings answer more to industry and conservative sexual values than to the mainstream tastes of America.  The film focuses on the power the board weilds and its secrecy, which gives it cover to operate under its own agenda instead of answering to the people it pretends to protect.
  • Hope plays a key role in both films.  This Film brims with people who propose alternate means by which we could rate films, means which would give parents real information about what was in the films and let them decide what their kids were ready for.  It makes a strong Free Speech argument aimed at the heart of the MPAA’s system.  Being Elmo provides an inspirational story about love of craft and love of life.  Elmo seems to mimic Kevin himself; the love he shares so freely inspires us all.
  • So at their core, both films are about the world we craft for our children.  Sesame Street was always about telling kids they could do what they want, and encouraging them to follow their dreams.  Henson’s PBS show is famously diverse in approach and communal in attitude, showing kids a world they would want to live in.  The MPAA claims to have the same goal — to help parents guide the world their children experience through cinema.  But where Sesame Street embodies the best of the human condition, the MPAA is surprisingly skewed in its vision of what is and isn’t harmful. (See my chart below)

Chart of things that seem to fall in different categories in the MPAA system.  (Note, according to This Film is Not Yet Rated, these rules are inconsistent)

PG-13 R NC-17
  • Bloodless murder (viz, James Bond movies)
  • Raunchy humor
  • Heterosexual sex with no nudity
  • Very mild swearing
  •  Violent murder, including gruesome acts of violence
  • Swearing
  • Drug Use
  • Acts of violence against women
  • Heterosexual sex in varying levels of intensity
  • Any sex involving more than two people
  • Almost any gay sex
  • Sex involving intense depictions of female pleasure
  • Sex involving “ususual” positions

This Film highlights the problematic acceptance of violence, which can get very extreme and still fall into the “R” category, whereas any sexual imagery deemed “deviant” or “unusual” by the board will quickly result in an NC-17.  In particular, the film points out two extremely disturbing trends: first, that scenes involving expressions of female pleasure, usually lingering on the woman’s face during lovemaking, often result in NC-17; second, that heterosexual scenes garner R ratings while nearly-identical homosexual scenes get NC-17.

Both films are worth watching.  This Film is Not Yet Rated isn’t really gripping, but brings to the fore an important intellectual question, and highlights a censorship issue that we all must consider as members of a free country with a supposedly free and open media.  Interestingly, as media channels continue to open up, the MPAA’s footprint recedes dramatically.    On the other hand, Being Elmo stands out as an amazing bit of storytelling, a compelling film that gives us a sense not just of Kevin Clash’s life, but of the puppeteer world and the world of the Muppets.  It’s fantastic.

PCA/ACA Copyright and Intellectual Property Area, 2012

At the PCA/ACA 2012 meeting in Boston last week, I chaired two panels for my area, Copyright and Intellectual Property.  They were both excellent, if I can say so myself.  First, the panels:

Plagiarism and Fair Use

fair using: the second factor  

Even though I’ll talk about legal issues, this isn’t about law. It’s about the ethical…

Gunnar Swanson East Carolina University
Plagiarius: Blurring Plagiarism and Piracy in Academia With the ease of cut-and-paste as well the multitude of “free paper” sites on the Internet,… Sandra Leonard Indiana University of PA
What Does Plagiarism *Feel* Like? Considering Audience Intuition in Questions of Choreographic Copyright  

In their work on choreographic copyright, scholars and journalists such as Sally Banes…

Alexandra Harlig The Ohio State University Department of Dance
  • Swanson’s talk focused on the second of the four “factors” that have been created to judge fair use.  He focused mostly on the fact that these factors came entirely from judicial common law, and focused a lot on the idea of originality as central to creativity.  He also explored the notion of “transformativeness” as one aspect of the second factor.  An interesting and informative talk.
  • Leonard focused on the strange collision of plagiarism and piracy in the minds of undergraduates, offering a compelling tale of a student accused of plagiarism who pleaded “Please don’t sue me for piracy.”  Her essential argument is that because both piracy and plagiarism are “copying” and the rhetoric of plagiarism mirrors the rhetoric of piracy more and more closely, students are beginning to see them as the same thing.  Ironically, this means they’re less likely to feel any compunction against plagiarism, as they view anti-piracy laws as an antiquated legal convention rather than an ethical imperative.  Leonard’s is a compelling, interesting argument.
  • Harlig presented a very compelling discussion of the current landscape around dance choreography, common practice, ethics, and copyright.  She used a series of Beyonce videos to explore the conversation about how dancers think about borrowing work from one another.  It’s just the kind of muddy water I find really interesting.

The Challenges of Copyright in the Digital Age

Pirates at the Gates: a discussion of the media coverage of SOPA and PIPA This presentation explores the philosophical and rhetorical positions taken by the actors and… Brendan Riley Columbia College Chicago
Shadowy Margins and Sinkholes: Authorship, Online Archives, and IP Law As my title suggests, I will focus on the legal challenges facing administrators of websites and… Gavin Keulks Western Oregon University
Striking a Chord that Satisfies Copyright Owners and Allows Free Speech to Keep Singing Mash-ups and remixes are not new, but they have been in the news a lot lately due to changes in… Lisa Macklem University of Western Ontario
  • I’ve already detailed my talk: SOPA/PIPA and the conundrum at the core of copyright — part 1, part 2.
  • Keulks’ talk outlined the complicated landscape walked by academics who study writers.  Using his own experience as the Martin Amis Web archivist, Keulks showed how recalcitrant publishers and un-helpful heirs can make such projects counter-productive or even impossible to create.  If ever there was a strong argument for a significant re-write of copyright law, this is it right here.
  • Macklem’s presentation focused on the fuzzy copyright issues at the core of remix culture.  She points out how the flexibility of the law makes it hard for remix artists to ply their trade.  As a lawyer, Macklem brought a different perspective to the table, one that sought a legal solution to the thorny space of remix.

Overall, it was an invigorating and exciting pair of panels, with great questions and good conversation.  I was particularly pleased with the audience for the second panel, which was up against George Takei’s keynote talk and still garnered 10 people or more.  Several of us went to Legal Seafood (an apt choice, if I do say so) afterward to continue the discussion.

Notice how my upraised fingers project a shadow-bunny on the wall behind me

That's when the cat skin fell from the ceiling
That's when the cat skin fell from the ceiling