The Romance of the Job

Is it possible to tell a compelling love story any longer? Romantic love is of course fascinating to the couple involved, but from the outside it seems difficult to portray without recourse to stale clichés and contrived conflicts — all the more so given the excessive overgrown of romantic stories in Western culture from the late middle ages into modernity. Romantic plotlines are increasingly called upon to do work they cannot do: to lend emotional credibility and investment to action films, for instance, or to introduce a level of humanity into television shows that are fundamentally about “the job” (the many variations on police procedurals, including medical and defense attorney procedurals).

In part, this evacuation of romantic love stems from the fact that contemporary characters love the job above all and have no emotional room for anything else. Read the rest of this entry »

Milton’s Dangerous Game

[Obligatory disavowal of any implicit claim to be saying something original about Milton.]

In the wake of the #CancelColbert saga, I’ve been thinking a lot about the attempt to “subvert from within” — not just Colbert’s method of subverting the right by portraying an (only slightly) exaggerated right-winger, but things like Watchmen or Game of Thrones that seem to want to expose the ugliness in their respective genres by amping it up a hundredfold. As I discussed with Gerry Canavan in a long-lost Twitter conversation, it doesn’t seem as though this strategy ever actually works. Right-wingers can happily watch Colbert, and audiences receive the “subversive” extreme version of a given genre as a particularly badass example of that genre. Even if it does sometimes achieve the desired end, adopting such a sophisticated, roundabout strategy is surely a dangerous game.

As I finish up Paradise Lost in my devil class, it seems to me that Milton is engaged in a similar dangerous game. He doesn’t merely want to join the epic tradition, with all the one-upsmanship that has always implied — he wants to destroy it from within, rendering the traditional epic impossible. In this view, the fact that the devil is the hero of the epic in traditional terms is not some scandalous secret, but rather the whole point: the heroes of traditional epics were wicked men, and the kinds of activities that were lauded in the epics (war, deception, etc.) are evil. Hence the devil does all of that, taking on the role of proud Achilles, crafty Odysseus, etc., and all of his actions are portrayed as being nihilistic and pointless. The hope is that Paradise Lost will break the spell of the traditional epic and highlight how much more amazing and meaningful the Christian narrative of redemption is.

Hence Milton was not secretly on the devil’s side — only his unshakeable faith could allow him to pursue this strategy so naively. Only a committed Christian could be so tone-deaf to how bad God comes across and expect proto-modern audiences to prefer God just because he’s God. As with other subversive meta-commentaries on a genre, the only person who would receive Milton’s critique as intended is someone who doesn’t need the critique. For everyone else, the extreme epic poem where the devil himself is the hero appears to be a particularly badass epic poem.

Young adult dystopia

It’s well known that dystopia is the hottest teen trend since vampires, but it’s more than a momentary trend — dystopia has been a staple of young adult literature and high school curricula for decades at this point. It’s very strange, because most high schools don’t remotely equip their students to understand the abstract social questions at play in such literature. I assume that part of the reason for spending time on 1984 or The Giver is to innoculate teenagers against the temptations of “totalitarianism,” but it seems like the strategy may be in danger of backfiring. Whereas before we had dystopias about the inevitably horrific consequences of any attempt to indulge in utopian impulses, our new dystopian literature is no longer about the ironic dystopian results of utopia — instead, it’s made up of pretty straightforward extrapolations from our contemporary experience. We’re no longer congratulating ourselves for avoiding the folly of central planning, but instead imagining the consequences of our contemporary ideology of never-ending high-stakes competition.

The Hunger Games is the obvious example. It’s far from a total fantasy, because I assume that someone will figure out a way to make an actual life-and-death reality TV show within our lifetimes. When that happens, people will be outraged, but will they be surprised? I don’t think so. Divergent has a similar immediate pull, as it is essentially about high-stakes testing regimes. And it makes sense that as these dystopias ever more closely approximate our contemporary world, the protagonists tend to be teenage girls — because who has more experience of trying desperately to carve out some space for agency in an oppressive regime than a teenage girl?

The long death of the middle-brow

The Oscars do not give awards for the most popular movies — that would simply be redundant. The Oscars also do not give awards for the best movies — they will make their presence felt over time. The Oscars instead operate in the uncertain terrain of the middle-brow. They have to hit a mark that’s snobbish enough not to simply endorse popular taste, but not so snobbish as to be a serious engagement with cinema as an artform. In short, they have to make moderately educated people feel smarter than average without accidentally making them feel dumb.

Read the rest of this entry »

The dystopian vision of high school

Gerry Canavan has linked to a nice article on why Americans’ high school years seem to shape them so disproportionately. It’s worth a read, though I think it might still lean a bit toward the more sensationalistic and dystopian vision of high school that American culture fetishizes.

I recognize that the experience can be very difficult and even traumatic for some people, particularly those with non-normative sexual identities. Yet these dystopias are not about people with such obvious “problems” — they are precisely about what the culture at large regards as “normal” people. And this of course means mostly white people: all the mainstream cultural fantasies related to the black or Hispanic high school experience are fantasies of a white teacher swooping in to save them, and this includes even The Wire.

If those of us who are broadly “normal” look back honestly on our high school years, I imagine that most of us would find that it looks more like Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life than like the “classical” pop-culture high school with its clearly-defined groups, its ruthless status competitions, etc. — a time characterized above all by confusion and unusually intense emotions. What does it say, though, that those shows, universally regarded as truer and more realistic than standard high school fare, were lucky to make it through a single season?

In other words: Why is our cultural fantasy one that puts forward high school as a non-stop reality TV show? Read the rest of this entry »

Book announcement: Religion and Hip Hop

My colleague Monica Miller, a fellow CTS PhD currently teaching at Lewis and Clark in Portland, has a new book coming out this summer called Religion and Hip Hop. Here’s the book description:

Religion and Hip Hop brings together the category of religion, Hip Hop cultural modalities and the demographic of youth. Bringing postmodern theory and critical approaches in the study of religion to bear on Hip Hop cultural practices, this book examines how scholars in religious and theological studies have deployed and approached religion when analyzing Hip Hop data. Using existing empirical studies on youth and religion to the cultural criticism of the Humanities, Religion and Hip Hop argues that common among existing scholarship is a thin interrogation of the category of religion. As such, Miller calls for a redescription of religion in popular cultural analysis – a challenge she further explores and advances through various materialist engagements.

Going beyond the traditional and more common approach of analyzing rap lyrics, from film, dance, to virtual reality, Religion and Hip Hop takes a fresh approach to exploring the paranoid posture of the religious in popular cultural forms, by going beyond what “is” religious about Hip Hop culture. Rather, Miller explores what rhetorical uses of religion in Hip Hop culture accomplish for various and often competing social and cultural interests.

DIY Hype

My recent study of Adorno has me looking at popular culture and everyday interactions through Adorno-shaded lenses. One phenomenon that jumps out at me is the tendency toward spurious “ranking,” that is, the expression of personal preference as an objective feature of the work. We don’t hear that our friends really liked a given album, for instance — we hear that it’s probably one of the best albums of the year. Even on purely personal measures, there’s a tendency toward ranking, as when one declares a given film their “favorite movie of all time.”

Why do we talk like this? Read the rest of this entry »

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