Sunday, October 25, 2009

Explaining the Joke


I. PREFATORY DISCLAIMER

You're about to witness me trying to pull together examples from a postmodern novel, some popular fiction and even (dare I!?) a few cartoon series, in order to show what I mean by "explaining the joke." This is liable to be ugly, but it might be fun!

II. GROENING, et al.

Let's start with the cartoons, because the explanations (and jokes) happen most obviously there, and when I say they "explain the joke" I mean it quite literally. It is impossible to watch an episode of The Simpsons, for example, without having at least one joke (or situation) explained for you.

I think the goal of the writers (who get paid way too much money) here is twofold. First, they want to make sure the highest number of gags work for the highest number of audience members. Second, they want to make a second joke by explaining the first joke.

The first type of explanation is used when a reference is made, and the writers are afraid it might be lost on younger (or stupider) viewers.

The second type of explanation is used whenever a writer feels like it (maybe when a scene is moving too slow) and wants to explain the obvious, especially the obviously ironic -- and that's the joke. This happens most often on Family Guy, but The Simpsons cannot be absolved of guilt either.

Homer is having a bad day, then he walks away from the
coffee table and it's stuck to his pants.
He tells us the coffee table is stuck to his pants
and adding to his bad day.

A mix of these two, a third type of explanation, happens when some kind of rhetorical or plot device is used that might be lost on some viewers. It is explained for their benefit. But this explanation functions as an "explaining the obvious" joke for the savvy cartoon viewer (as if there is such a thing!). I picture Stewie Griffin saying something like:

"You see what I did there? I equated you with a transvestite.
You're a transvestite. You wear women's clothing."

I have always poo pooed these kind of jokes as an insult to my intelligence, as a damper on the actually funny jokes, and as a comedy crutch. I especially can't stand the explanations that make reference-based jokes funny for everyone. I have always thought of a reference as a sort of inside joke for those who know the reference -- right? In one Simpsons episode, there is a rapid succession of references ending with Homer riding a bomb to his death. I got them, and they were not explained. I felt like they were much more successful "jokes" because of what was left unsaid.

But you know, until the scene was over I didn't put it past those writers to have Homer say something like, "I'm riding the bomb! Just like the cowboy guy in Dr. Strangelove when he falls out of the plane! Weeee!" and then have Bart walk up and say "Enough with the sixties movie references, Homer." You know it could happen just like that, reader. Does it not make you even a little annoyed?

(Sorry if I seem hostile -- I've been hanging out late nights with Charlotte Bronte. Plus I'm listening to Kansas who are insisting that I'm dust in the wind.)

III. YATES

My next example of explaining the joke is more like "explaining the literary device." But it functions like the joke explanations in that the author seems to want to ensure that no subtle (or obvious) device is lost on the reader, and in that the effect on the savvy reader is an insult to the intelligence, and a lack of satisfaction with the allusion, foreshadowing, etc. compared with the satisfaction they would have gotten with discovering the device on their own.

I recently gave a five-star review on Goodreads.com to Richard Yate's novel Revolutionary Road. I loved the unapologetically manly style, the intensity of the characters, the treatment of some horrid situations, and the insights about '50s culture (it was published in '62, so these critiques were not yet trite a la Pleasantville). After a few days, I went back and knocked the review down to four stars. Throughout the book I'd been prodded here and there by parenthetical references to earlier character dialog and inner dialog, and I couldn't forgive that.

Here's how it went: Whenever a particular character description resurfaced, like April recalling a negative description of herself by Frank, the earlier negative statement would show up in parentheses and italics. As if we'd forgotten Frank said that. Then, say, whenever April is thinking about what to do, she would reflect on a conversation with Frank and how she regretted it and snippets of the conversation would be inserted for us. They have said these hateful things to each other throughout. Dear author, it might have been more fun if you let us remember or go back and look for the exact phrase you are referring to. We get it without the explanation!

This also happened with foreshadowing in the novel. Once the foreshadowed event or statment was realized, the author would provide us with a parenthesized and italicized recap of the actual foreshadowing line from back in chapter five or whatever. Thanks, man. That's a big help.

As if all this weren't bad enough -- Yates is great at intense scenes, gets us all wound up, yet he has these parenthetical things show up right in the middle of fighting or sex! Sometimes it makes sense, but other times -- what a bummer!

I'm sorry I didn't put actual examples here but I described them pretty true to the book. Believe me, you can just flip through RR and find these things. The parentheses even make it easy to go back and find'em for your high school book report!

III. a. SIDETRACK THAT MAY OR MAY NOT BE TRANSITIONAL.

Now I still like The Simpsons (maybe excluding some of the newer writers) and I still like Revolutionary Road but their overexplaining has certainly put a damper on my enjoyment of them. At least The Simpsons are an ongoing text, always offering to redeem itself. I'm not sure though. I was reading while watching the new "Treehouse of Horror" this month, and had to look up and sigh when:

Marge: Ok Maggie, we'll see you in three hours.
Homer: Or later, if something happens.

I know this is supposed to be ironic (or what people call ironic nowadays), but it does get old after awhile. The fact that entire cartoons (Family Guy and its offspring) are based on things purposely not being that funny, jokes purposely dragging out too long, or a whole joke being that someone's purposely being way too obvious about plot devices and self-sconscious of everything that happens on the show, indicates that it's time for a humor overhaul. When eveything's ironic, nothing's ironic. (And doesn't dramatic irony depend on what the little people in the TV box don't know?)

IV. GARDNER

The last thing on my list is last because I really don't have a problem with its explaining. I just read John Gardner's novel Grendel for my Senior Seminar in Literary Theory (which is really a last minute "Oh SHIT! We totally forgot to tell you about this literary...uh...theory thing!" crash course), and I thought it was great. It was the perfect, easy book for a last minute "Oh SHIT!" course, but an enjoyable read (or game) for those readers who can instantly tell what's going on it too.

The novel is purposely designed for beginning theory students to be able to find a million and one things to take apart, to help them begin a very easy jog down the intertextuality path (follow Beowulf directly to Beowulf...), and to put on display every element of postmodernism that points to "Hey guys! I think this is postmodernism!"~"Wow, get over here and look! Tommy found some postmodernism!"

To be more specific for those of you who aren't the same kind of nerd as me (you're all nerds if you're reading this, just different flavors), Grendel is postmodern because it is self-conscious, funny, purposefully intertextual (it "talks" back to Beowulf), pushes the limits of genre, and most of all because it knows it's going to be subjected to criticism and picked at by theorists. If you think of earlier novels, like 19th century ones, I'll bet you can't think of many that behave this way. That's the postmodern, in a smoothed over nutshell.

Now for the theory games planted in it: they give this text a meta-text aspect that's pretty unique, even to postmodern novels. But the games are almost all very obvious, and some are superfluous, not really offering any new insight into the text. This could be interpreted as yet another task of self-reflection and postmodern playfulness (look at this funny thing I'm doing by hiding all this theory stuff in me!), but it's also interesting to me because of the obvious authorial intent. That is, Gardner didn't do all that stuff by accident or because of some sea of texts flowing through him. Theorists, especially Kristeva, grandmother of intertextuality, like to deny the importance of any authorial intent. I like to think of Grendel as a game played with Gardner present. But I suppose he doesn't really have to be there. His (the) puzzle box works autonomously.

I don't have a conclusion about all this yet, but I think it's fun to think about it from both sides of the author is dead/alive argument when you have a book that appears to have a tutorial purpose like this one. (I busted up my class when I asked if Kristeva often tells her husband he doesn't exist -- he's a writer. Petty and missing the point on my part, but it went over well! "Ecris! Ecris! Tu n'existes pas! Tu es MORT!")

Anyhow, some of the treats in Grendel are hard to find but others are so painfully obvious that they are not really fun to "discover" unless you are a total theory virgin. Which is why I said it's great for this class. The treat I laughed most at was "mor(t)al," which is just a call to whip out your handy step-by-step deconstruction manual . But the zodiac in twelve chapters? C'mon. Some kids got waaaay too excited about that. The zodiac supposedly acts as a key to the twelve philosophies developed in the chapters (the philosophy is fun to read -- Nietzsche and other existentialists lurk and lurk), but I'm not sure how. Besides, that's just what Gardner said the zodiac was there for when he was pressed to explain it. And what does he know?

V. SHOULD I STOP NOW?

So you've endured three very different, very half-assed analyses, but I hope you get the point. In most cases, explaining what you're doing in humor or in art is obnoxious and does not serve the art, but subtracts from it. Unless you're a brilliant novelist -- then it just makes you "postmodern" (cough) and I can forgive you.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Dynamic Meme


A few weeks ago, after playing a game called "Rick Roller," (which baffled me completely) I decided to find out what the heck a Rick Roller is. The Google search returned four types of things: the Rick Roller game, videos and articles on how to Rick Roll, a Wikipedia article on "Rickrolling," and several YouTube URLs of some character named Rick Astley.

Having never been Rick Rolled, I was astounded at how pervasive rickrolling (it's already lost its upper case in some articles) has become. It started as an internet meme, a term or speech (typing?) habit that becomes a catchphrase because of its embodiment of internet weirdnesses (other examples include "Lolcats," quoting random lines from the movie 300 when they make the least sense, purposely making typos like "teh," etc.).

Internet memes carry more signification than it seems. They often self-consciously point to the problems of communicating through a keyboard (PWNED), the problems of communicating at high speed(LOL!!111), and to the reciprocal flow of intertextuality between the internet and other popular media. They are also aware that the internet's system of communication depends on frameworks that do not exist in face-to-face communication, such as routing (and it is this knowledge which makes the rickroll meme, a simple unexpected re-route, so successful as a communication interruption). At an even higher level of self-consciousness, internet memes are aware that they are memes and they are aware of their uncanny ability to spread virally. And curiously, I am not aware of any internet meme that is not funny, or at least meant to be funny. When you consider the dialogic nature of these memes, their embracing of popular culture no matter how tasteless, and the self-consciousness in communication that makes them possible, internet memes seem to be the ultimate postmodern texts.

Some of these memes have moved from the internet into the dimension of speaking people socializing and working in "meatspace" (that should be a technical term by now). Some of them, to be sure, entered the internet from other media and came back out somewhat changed, and certainly better known, e.g. "All your base are belong to us." Rickrolling, however, began as an internet meme that used bad popular culture (music) as the icing on the cake of its genius disruption of internet navigation.

Navigation and routing on the internet, as mentioned above, is part of the internet's system of communication. We depend upon it to function properly, because we seek some meaning based on what a link is called or on what someone says it points to. Not only is the signifier that we get when we click through to Rick unintelligible, but it interrupts the task of information getting. It is a discontinuity in the way the internet is supposed to behave. According to computer scientist Garry Marshall, part of the routing system's goal is "to ensure that the users of the virtual world provided by the data space are unaware of the underlying network." Rickrolling makes us aware of it, as it calls our attention to our dependence on links to "say" what they "mean." What appears to be a communication breakdown is disorienting, but also funny, because of the kitschy content chosen to accompany the confusion.

I must now interrupt myself to mount a defense: Rickrolling, which may be one of the most bizarre and original internet pranks, is definitely heads above the ubiquitous LOLCATS and internet gaming language in its conceptuality. In an article for the U of Alberta magazine The Gateway, a student who shares my awe of the rickroll tears into internet memes that are "teh suck" and defends Rick as a truly positive communication phenomenon.

Rickrolling has, like its fellow internet memes, made its way out into meatspace in several incarnations. It was supposedly used at a college basketball game to interrupt at half-time, but the first instance of this game-interrupting was found to be staged and edited to look like an actual interruption. Even though that instance never really took place, its hoax video has inspired actual rickrolls at sporting events. Unfortunately no one at the Mets game got the joke. Students and young workers have used the song to interrupt their own video and Power Point presentations or broadcast the song through a store's PA system, but again without the desired effect. One of few successful TV attempts at rickrolling happened on a news show when an anchorwoman twice asked for a link on the screen to be clicked, and there was Rick, and Rick again.

I think the only instance of rickrolling that has made a significant mark on meatspace was the 2008 protest in front of The Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, California. Masked protesters (concerned that the Scientologists would attempt to identify them and then work their Scientology voo doo on them) held boomboxes aloft and performed a live rickroll of the church. The message of the rickroll, when used as a protest, is a powerful one. "We have interrupted what you are trying to communicate. We have interrupted what you are doing. We are not listening to you. Your messages are rendered powerless because we are speaking over them with one seemingly unintelligible but unified secret-code-message. Your messages have no more meaning than a Rick Astley video." Just as the rickroll discloses the pitfalls of internet communication, it attempts to disclose the Church of Scientology. Or at least, it makes people ask questions about it. In this instance, the internet meme of the rickroll becomes a cultural meme, carrying with it a kind of irreverence, solidarity, humor, and a more serious demand for disclosure.

Although many of the onlookers at the protest, and the Scientologists themselves, probably had no idea what was going on, the event was of course videoed, put up on YouTube, and linked automatically by YouTube to all the other rickroll-related videos. Rickrollers and rickrollees now know about the protest, and will surely try to use the song in a similar way. As silly as it may be as an internet meme, I think the cultural meme of rickrolling could be a useful, non-violent means of protest and demonstration. Protests often have interruption and confusion as their methods of attention-getting, and the introduction of chaos broadcasts a well-understood message of challenging the status-quo while pointing to the chaos that is a natural function of human life, and in this case, communication.

Rick Astley has been awfully good natured about this whole thing, and has lately done interviews and talk shows all over the world. But linguists or cultural theorists who might write on rickrolling would not really consider his opinion of it. Astley is not really part of the meaning, even if he is part of the chaos of it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Literature Subject Test: Problems, Advice

I took the Literature in English GRE Subject Test today. And of course I can't stop thinking about it.

This test is, I've heard from several sources, the hardest standardized test or at least the hardest of the GREs. It used to be one of the be-all end-alls of the graduate application, but over the past ten or fifteen years its weight as an indicator of a student's literature-learning/analyzing potential has been reduced significantly. Is there something wrong with the test? Is there something wrong with English major undergraduates?

I think the answer is a little bit of both. The books, the former test takers, the successful applicants who squeezed out the best score they could and then put all their eggs in the writing sample basket, all seem to agree it's tough as hell. It's also impossible to really "study" for. There is no way of knowing what you'll be tested on, save a few of the GRE folks favorite authors. And this test isn't only about literature. It's about English monarchs. It's about Greek mythology. It's about interpreting passages from the Bible.

I'm sure in biology, math, or engineering there are certain questions you know you'll see, or at least certain specific topics you know are necessary to know inside and out. I imagine the undergraduate work in these fields probably offers a good foundation for the exams. I saw some of the students' guidebooks with neat vocab lists and diagrams in them. Each of those terms or pictures would require the student to know the deifnition, and know how the thing in the picture works. I don't think they would have to know the entire history of the thing, interpret the thing, or place the thing in some other context. Do they identify scientists and mathematicians by looking at fragments of their formulas? I wonder.

I'm not saying the other kids have it easy, I think they just have a better chance of doing well on their tests. I have seen, on the general graduate admissions sites at different schools, the required scores for engineering applicants, psychology applicants, etc. They are expected to score very highly. This indicates it not only must be possible, but that the very good students do score highly! Their tests are perhaps good indicators of their abilities or at least their knowledge in their field.

Now back to the Lit test. Many schools no longer require it, which shows it's fading as an indicator of student potential. Only half of my schools require it, and I have it already on the way to those who do. I am waiting for the scores to decide if I will send it to those who don't! Perhaps many low scores are coming in. Perhaps schools took some chances by ignoring a few of those scores, and were pleasantly surprised by their picks. Whatever their reasoning, the people who evaluate candidates, the most important judges in this application process, seem to have trumped ETS. A faceless testing entity (who sends out half-trained hired guns as proctors) is no longer in control of our fate, so that seems like a good thing.

Part of the fault for the decline of the Lit test may lie with undergrad English programs. At my school, and at many others, there is not much specific required work for earning that English degree. We take all the same Gen Eds of course, but we are not required to toil over novels and poetry anthologies the way a biology student toils over anatomy coloring books and forty pound texts. This is in a couple ways a good thing -- for our self-development (which humanities students are likely to consider) we get exposed to many other disciplines and get a liberal arts background, and for our development as English scholars, we have the chance to soak up all the contexts we will have to consider when we do eventually sit down with our own forty pounds of sundry books. But the downside to all this "elective" freedom is a lack of focus, and certainly a lack of reading! We don't read nearly as much as we should. And they don't try to make us. They don't even really suggest it.

Lucky for me, I'm a philosophy minor (reading! reading! reading!), I am older so I've read more over the years, and I am in a very small program where I get a lot of personal attention. I may not have done the copious reading of an undergrad at some prestigious liberal artsy school, but between Nietzche, Marx and pals, the ten years since high school, and the suggested outside readings I get from professors in both departments (ENG and PHL) I think I was in a little better shape than some. But not the best shape.

So in short, I think there must needs be (I like that idiom) more required period work, author-specific courses, and theory at the undergraduate level for any student to EVER be even half prepared for this test. I say half prepared because you should be expected to do a significant amount of work and reading on your own. But it's really very hard to do most of it on your own, without your college experience functioning as a good guide for what to study and how.

For the record, the only person I know who scored very high on this test was a Yale M. Phil. holder at the time, and he'd already been teaching college for 20 years when he went back to take the test for re-admittance to the Ph.D. program. If that's the only kind of (amazing) dude who can get a high score, I don't think the rest of us have anything to be ashamed of.

Whatever be the reason,
if it's all on ETS, or a discipline-wide malaise,
the test is something to be taken
a little more lightly these days.
I know I was not making this face during the test.


So here's the advice portion. I think it can be said that this is a test on anything that can be "read," save technical scientific work. The scope of it is daunting, to say the least, and even the depth of it can get intense when the GRE crafters really sink their teeth into a period or author.

So you can count on something from every "period" in the last 2000 years, and some Greeks as far back as 2500 years. And not just the literature, but the essays, the history, the politics.

Hwaet! You can count on more than just literature "in English." That includes translations from French, Spanish, Italian, Old English, and they don't even translate the Middle English for you! Know your funny OE/ME characters.

They got hung up on two periods on my test (I won't say which in case ETS comes after me. Let's wait till I get the scores.). One of these periods had a lot of similar almost indistinguishable writers (for someone who doesn't focus on them), and none of the works were something a student was likely to have read in class. The other period was, I will admit, one that bores me to death. But I was lucky enough to have taken a class on it in the spring. Point being, if you have already focused in on a period and it dominates your reading, don't bet on it being on the test. Make sure to read some stuff you hate a few months before.

There will be myths on there, but there's no way to know which. Exciting! Dammit.

The final words: THEORY and MODERN POETRY. I'm not giving away specific information about my test here. These are things that are on every Lit test in significant amounts. I know a lot about theory because I like it, but you may hate it. Read it anyway, or at least get some handy guide to it. The modern poetry had me scared shitless, but I studied up on it in a couple of nights. I know I missed a couple of them, but for the most part it was easy after just reading a bunch of the poems. The stuff is so weird, it all looks the same at first, but learning poets by simple little idiosyncracies is probably good enough, if you also know some history.

(I think I will grow to like these poets so I'm glad I threw myself into it. Even so, for today Robert Frost was "Frosty Trees and Apples," Carl Sandburg was "Mr. Chicago politico," and Wallace Stevens was "All colors and birds." Silly mnemonics, but they worked.)

Driving home I realized I totally fucked up by giving a postmodern poem to Countee Cullen, which meant another one or two answers was wrong. At least I realized it, and at least I thought about it. No matter what, I know I did really well on the first huge chunk of it and any guess I made was an educated one (that is, until they called, "Twenty minutes!"). I did get a little gift at the end, when I was frantically racing to finish and turned to a page with ALL the questions about one favorite author's passage. Score!

Now we shall see. (And so will Boulder, Cornell, Princeton, and a few others.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

We Speak Car


A year ago I ranted about a Chevy commercial. Tonight it's Ford who's won my disdain.

I have long been tired of commercials which use quotation marks around images. It was a novel idea a few years ago. Now everybody does it. Needless to say, "everybody does it" is no reason to quit doing something in advertising. A survey of billboards on any highway will show you that. They still haven't gotten tired of Writing. With. Periods.

Anyhow, Ford spins or drives or zooms in on a Focus or some godawful pretend-low-gas-milage (WOW! We can get you 2 more MPG! THAT'S PROGRESS! Technology SAVES THE DAY!) car, and along with it float the quotation marks as the announcer tells us, "We speak Car."

Is Car a language? It could be considered a system of signs I suppose. "Bitchin' Camaro" carries a very different meaning from "Lincoln Sedan," or even "Jeep Wrangler rollin' 35s." Certainly, cars carry with them a host of meanings, suggestions, and attractions. But can you really speak them?

Cars are (and I hate to say this) probably the best way to use a "We speak X" sort of ad campaign. But they are part of a larger phenomenon of using images in place of language. Again, some of these categories of images can be better forced or wrangled into a system of signs than others, but what of toilet paper? What of dish detergent? (Barthes did take on the semiotics of soap powder, back in the '70s.)

A Target commercial shoves these things and more in between a neat pair of double quotes. Baby wipes, lipstick, lampshades. They're all things we apparently no longer need words for because we can just look at their images on a screen.

And at the end of the Ford commercial, the Focus pulls back into center screen, shattering the quotes. They are no longer needed, because the car is no longer a metaphor for some other kind of pretend language. Ford is pretty sure they've pointed to a real one.