27 July 2014

Radical

This keeps coming up. So a quick word about radicalism.

“Radical” does not mean violent, bad, extreme, or “too much”. It means, literally, striking at the root.

A radical leftist thinks you cannot improve our political institutions, you have to replace them. A radical feminist believes that you cannot simply pass a few laws to give women equal rights, you need to transform the whole of a sexist society. One can advocate radical change in teaching curriculum for math or manufacturing methods for automobiles or programming languages for computes or women's fashion for the next season.

I use the word “radical” descriptively, not as dismissal or an insult. Many things need a radical approach.

26 July 2014

Snowpiercer

The gnostic interpretation of Snowpiercer is too obvious.

We Live In The Dark offers an analysis of Snowpiercer which is, to my mind, exactly correct.

A lot of discussions of Snowpiercer I’ve seen have been very literal, which I think is a terrible way to read this film when so much of it is densely allegorical. The train at its centre is a clear allegory for capitalism [I’ve seen this rejected so here’s the director saying it himself this is a film about capitalism]. It’s capitalism: what was promised as an ark of salvation but became a barbaric prison for all but the very privileged.

It's not a review, it's an analysis, so see the film first.

And having said that, some spoiler-ish comments from my FB feed. Elena Rose says:

It's more like the ending of Le Guin's "Omelas": we don't know what life is like outside this train any more, we've never seen it with our own eyes, and the price of getting out is, idealists' romantic hopes aside, very high. But the price of staying in is, unfortunately, even higher, and that won't last forever either, so there we are. If you wreck the train, maybe everyone dies. If you stay in the train, everyone still dies, and maybe on the way they become something less and less worth saving by the day.

The other point of that apex predator was, of course: there's an apex predator out here. There's an ecosystem to be the apex of out here! There's enough out here for a population of polar bears to live on! The world isn't dead! And maybe humanity doesn't make it, sure, but life does. That's something.

Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum : Let justice be done though the heavens fall.

Ihe other Big Point of the film: that final seductive chance to be the new person who runs the train, who might run it better, might take the power and redistribute some of the food, change the conditions some, use...fewer...children...as...engine parts...

We can say a lot, allegory aside, about, "Maybe if he'd taken over just for a little while, slowed the train down, gotten to somewhere near the equator and hit the brakes and given people a chance to walk off, if that's even a possible thing," but I think one of the film's arguments, take it or leave it, is that the system would warp that attempt hopelessly for the worse, and that the chance to be the better, kinder runner of that system is a false temptation, not a genuine solution. We can agree or disagree, but it seems like the filmmaker was pretty clear on where he stood on that. It still comes down to the math on which children we stick in the cogs of the engine to make it run, and how many, you know?

Which helps to inspire me to say that the longer I sit with it, the more I like the ending. This is informed by the commentary I linked.

The ending is neither happy nor unhappy. We do not need to approve of the decision to destroy the train, only to understand it.

We see Curtis' hazy Marxist dream prove to be doomed: if as a denizen of the tail section he seizes the engine, he is still trapped by the material logic of the train and simply makes himself the captain of its horrors. His compassion prevents him from doing that, but he has no positive vision to offer as an alternative. He cannot leave Wilford's order in place nor can he take command of that order himself nor can he transform the train's order into an alternative which is either superior or viable, much less both. Unable to think outside the train, he is stuck.

As Elena says, Namgoong and Yona aren't really sure that a better life awaits them outside the train. They simply cannot permit the train's cruelties to continue, and if the alternative is death for everyone they are prepared to have murdered everyone. They hope that life in the snow is possible and better — and as Yona's uncanny insight allows her to perceive what lies beyond every door, she has cause to think it may be — but they are less pro-snow than they are anti-train.

We in the audience don't have to want to destroy the train. We just have to understand why they would.

24 July 2014

The beauty of women

Something sentimental but true I just told a friend on Facebook:

We need a vast conspiracy of lies and attacks in order to drown out the plain truth about the awe that the beauty* of ordinary women inspires in most people, men and women alike. If women were all fully conscious of this truth, society as we know it would shatter.


* (I'm talking just the shallow sense of beauty as “looking good”, here. Don't get me started on beauty in a profound sense.)

Hulk smash

Just for fun:

I am, thank you. Now, if you'll forgive me the pretention of the third person ...

Hulk must destroy to the best of his considerable abilities.

23 July 2014

Kickstarter

Timothy Burke notices something about Kickstarter.

All our institutions and organizations, of all kinds, are now tangled up in their own complexity, all of them are increasingly built to collect tolls rather than build bridges.

All that money spent on market research, on product development, on vice-presidents of this and that, and what you have, especially in the culture industry, is a giant apparatus that is less accurate than random chance in creating the entertainment or products that consumers can quite clearly describe their desire for. So clearly that the consumers are giving money to people they like who have no intention of or ability to make what the donors say they want.

16 July 2014

Jocks and feminism

A while back I learned the story of Katherine Switzer, the first woman to enter the Boston Marathon, in 1967. She hid in the bushes and started the race in disguise.

When the race director saw what she was doing, he attacked her, trying to rip off her race number.

Now there were a lot of runners who were supportive of her. But still, deep resistance to women's athletics was a powerful force not so long ago, and is still around today.

So when a friend passed along this delightful video of the first woman to finish the absurdly difficult American Ninja Warrior obstacle course, I enjoyed it not just for the pleasure of seeing her do it. What really got to me is all the jockish men in the audience beside themselves rooting for her. Look at their faces.




Little victories.

Special containment procedures

The SCP Foundation is a delightful product of our moment.

What is the Foundation?
We are the last bastion of security in a world where natural laws rapidly break down. We are here to protect humanity from the things that go bump in the night, from people who wield power beyond mortal understanding. We are here to make the world a safer place. We are the holders of wonders, and the crafters of dreams. We are why the world continues. In the short form, we're a creative writing site, devoted towards horror.

The main component of the Foundation website is a kind of encyclopedia of reports on anomalous objects, like SCP-1051:

Special Containment Procedures:
Due to SCP-1051's main danger being information leakage, efforts towards containment have been placed into denial or falsification of rumors surrounding its existence. Agents are to be reminded that any reference towards SCP-1051 or similar concepts during interaction with a civilian, whether online or offline, are to be met with ridicule and/or denial. Knowledge beyond current cultural information may require the application of a Class-A amnesiac.

I recommend following the link to read more. SCP-1051 is a great spooky little idea with a note of wry humor.

Part of what I love about it is that it's a work that is made possible by the internet. There's no other way a fictional universe of such richness could emerge from the efforts of hundreds of contributing authors.

Another part I love is that I recognized it as soon as I stumbled across it. It's a cocktail of many of my popculture guilty pleasures from the last few decades. Stories about secret government conspiracies. Pseudoscientific modern legends like UFOs and Bigfoot and free energy machines. The thought while watching the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark that the big government warehouse must also contain other lost wonders. Encyclopedias of fictional worlds like Middle Earth, and roleplaying game sourcebooks.

In a world containing other people with my geeky cultural interests, of course SCP exists.

14 July 2014

You say you want a revolution?

Most of today's critics of capitalism feel embarrassed when you confront them with a simple question: “What do you really want? What should replace the system?”

Via the Ke$ha and Žižek Tumblr. For future reference.

12 July 2014

Lost Boys

Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It's fun to be a vampire.

A friend on Facebook asked why ’80s rock ’n’ roll vampire movie The Lost Boys still works. I said:

The mystery of The Lost Boys is a mystery. But I have a hypothesis.

The heart of the movie is the sequence in which the Boys recruit Michael, and that sequence rings true because it portrays a kind of night that everyone (even guys like me who were total dorks as teenagers) experiences at least once during their adolescence: the night where you're rolling with the bad kids, trying to understand them, trying to decide if this is what cool is, feeling a little bit scared and a little bit liberated ... and then having the sick realization that somewhere along the line things had gone out of control and you have no idea where this is going to end. And you are no longer A Little Bit scared, you are actually scared, and all you can do it ride it out.

And then somehow you find your way out. And the next morning you wonder if you're the same person.

Plus: Vampires are just plain cool. And Santa Cruz was born to be a star.

11 July 2014

#InvisibleBridge

Rick Perlstein explains the title of his forthcoming book about the consolidation of the The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan:

He recalled a conversation he had at the Soviet premier’s dacha back in 1959. After a long lunch Khrushchev became expansive. He said that sometimes in order to be a statesman, you have to be a politician. If the public sees an imaginary river in front of them, the politician doesn’t tell them there’s no river. A politician builds an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river. Nixon told the story as though there was guidance to be found in it, and I took his point to be that if the public thought food prices were a problem, the politician should offer a solution, thereby preserving his ability to make statesmanlike decisions another day.

He goes on to ask:

Who wants to join an ‪#‎invisiblebridge‬ hashtag virus in which folks tag (sure, bipartisan!) instances of political bullshitting in the spirit of the book's epigram of Khrushev's advice to Nixon?

I would!

07 July 2014

Dark Side of the Moon

Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was the first album I ever bought, and though I haven't listened to it straight through in years, I'm sure that will go to my grave having listened to it more times than any other album.

When I bought it (on cassette!) in 1983, it had appeared on Billboard magazine's “Hot 200” list of best-selling albums without fail for a decade, far longer than any other album had. It would eventually drop back off ... only to reappear for years more.

The Wikipedia entry for the album quotes Robert Christgau calling it a “kitch masterpiece” in 1981. That's about right. A few years later, I would write a half-sincere, half-kitschy appreciation of it in the form of a science fiction story in which universal language translation software given the fundamental physics of the Cosmos as input, and told to render it into English, produced the album as output. By that time, Pink Floyd had long been my first rock ’n’ roll love, as I would write in a eulogy for Syd Barrett when this blog was still young.

I recognize that my love for the album reflects, in large part, having discovered it in a moment of imprint vulnerability. But if you don't recognize that the mix of simple piano, Clare Tory's passionate improvised vocals, and odd little miscellany on “Great Gig In The Sky” is a little miracle, expressing something inarticulable and true about the connection between eros and thanátos, then I pity you for being unable to truly hear one of my favorite things.

03 July 2014

Superman

Apparently Zach Snyder is concerned that someone might mistakenly expect some fun in his second Superman film.

I miss the real Superman more than ever.

30 June 2014

Paradoxes of social justice activism

Freddie at L'Hôte has a rant — bullshit social climber faux-antiracism — about a paradox in contemporary social justice activism.

Nothing could be more indicative of the state of American social liberalism than the divide between the graduate classes I take and the undergraduate classes I teach. The students in the graduate classes are endlessly careful to check their privilege. That's good. Privilege is real, it's better to think about it than not to. But the obsessive focus on privilege checking is the epitome of how people misunderstand social change. People of the world, I implore you: what is privilege checking doing for anyone? Is anyone in the world going to materially benefit from someone in some grad seminar checking their privilege? Has all the privilege checking in every cultural studies class in the history of creation ever put clothes on someone's back or food in their belly? Ever stopped a single cop from beating a black man senseless? Don't mistake your purification rituals for progress, please.

Meanwhile, my undergrads are mostly good kids. But they are absolutely repulsed by what they take organized social liberalism to be. I talk about politics with them and they seem generally to be on the side of the angels. But you mention the word feminism, and they recoil. It's visceral. And the young women are even worse than the men. They aren't racist, mostly. But in large majorities, they are skeptical to outright hostile towards organized antiracism. Why? In part, because of ignorance and privilege and apathy. But in part, because they have grown into a world where social liberals are more interested in demonstrating their superiority over them than in educating them. Because they perceive, correctly, that white antiracism is dominated by people who are more interested in being right than in doing right.

....

The fundamental conditions on the ground are a social liberalism that speaks to and for a smaller and smaller group of self-selected people, utterly unable to create material change, but endlessly self-congratulatory and aggressive, in a way that expels precisely the people who need to be educated.

We are in a moment in which social justice culture is doing worthy things that may be strategically counterproductive, and there's neither a clear vision of a different course nor a way to make it happen if we had one.

I have no idea what to do about this.

28 June 2014

Rite

Warren Ellis' Stormwatch is a story about a superhero team which is a meditation on the whole idea of superhero teams. My favorite thing in it is this Amazon, a wonder who doesn't stick around long, I suspect because this panel is enough to make the necessary point.

Rite comes from a place where magic is a female thing, as is war.

Women have a higher pain tolerance than men, and greater stamina, and so Rite is a soldier.

Women’s dialogue with the inner and outer worlds of the human race is a more intuitive, emotionally truer thing, and so Rite is a priestess.

Her presence in the greater world is a ritual thing, her people’s magical act of salvation for the world.

She is sent out as ambassador and messiah, it its strictest literal and political definition; one anointed as liberator.

27 June 2014

Design from the outside in

I don't agree with Khoi Vinh's argument in Wearables, Fashion, and iWatch that a successful wearable device needs to somehow accommodate consumers' desire for endless variety in styling. I submit that wearables will be less a matter of fashion, which calls for variety and novelty, than they will prove to be a matter of style, which converges on classics. Recall that people were predicting not so long ago that you'd eventually have half a dozen differently-styled cellphones for different occasions.

But this little observation about the locus of design — the “inside” or the “outside” — is quite good.

When technology companies look at goods that are built from the outside in, they generally see irrationality and inefficiency, a broken market just waiting to be corrected and “disrupted.” They believe that they can engineer so much value into these items that people will be swayed to buy goods built from the inside out, that the promise that drives hardware and software—“adopt this and benefit from its utility”—will convince people to upend their sartorial habits. This is how you get products like Google Glass, which assumes that consumers prize utility so much that they’re willing to look like they have no interest whatsoever in having intimate relations with another human being.

Via John Gruber at Daring Fireball.