Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In the Style of Lyly


Below is a page-length of Euphuistic prose I'm writing for a Prose Styles class assignment. I'm not quite there with the antithesis and endless lists that say the same thing a hundred ways, but I'll keep editing this until it's Lyly all the way. This version was after reading Euphues on my own, but after class discussion and reading Shakespeare's parodies of this stuff (which are really exactly copied from this stuff -- you don't need to exaggerate it to see how ridiculous it is), I think I understand the style a little better. I don't understand, however, why such a style became a fad -- Shakespeare made fun of it because it had become the 16th century equivalent of Valley Girl talk.

(And after looking at this book cover, I have decided I am going to call myself not "M.A." upon confirmation of this next degree, but forever and always, "Mafter of Arte.")

Anatomy of Appetite

There came bumbling along the avenue a boy of not more than ten, a boy of more heft than health and yet of more health than holiness, thinking the town his grazing grounds and his watering hole, so that he spent these daily walks sniffing the air for familiar wafts – charbroiled burgers, fried chips, fragrant rotisserie chickens; and, if it were Friday, the sweet olfactory evidence of a pig roast. It was whispered that the boy’s mother, whose cooking was worse than her looks, and yet whose looks were better than her maternal judgment, and who had not been seen with a husband in ten years (was not the boy nearly ten?), would send him out of house to procure whatever dishes and dainties his tremendous appetite required, two twenty dollar bills his ticket to more than mere sustenance; a suburban avenue, with all its light-up signs and fast service foods and barbeque joints, his means to a greasy, dripping end.
Preferring meat before sweet (yet still fond of sweet meats) the boy had only to select this evening’s protein; after supper he would loiter in the 7-11, ogling shelves of chocolate things, chocolate-filled things, chocolate-covered things. Finding the pig roast as the fly finds honey or a dirty diaper, and landing upon a plate of flesh without so much grace as the fly, and yet creating a scene just as revolting, the boy devoured hock, nibbled feet, chewed upon pulled pork sandwich. He paid with his wadded bills and took his leave and his change for the shelves of candies, his only care now to select the most winning combination of chocolates and nougats, chiclets and nutbars, that could be afforded for nine dollars and twenty-seven cents. He loved a candy coating; for as the Reese’s cup has its chocolate shell, the M&M its colorful sugary jacket, the gum drop its sweet crystalline glaze -- he himself had none.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Critical Climax


The commercial with the fried egg should have said, "This is your brain... This is your brain on Deleuze." And so from my fried egg I give you this rhizome or plateau or something, concerning something completely different:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.


No movement has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course

With rocks, and stones, and trees.


I just read some E. D. Hirsch on historical criticism, from Validity in Interpretation. Hirsch (I keep wanting to call him "Ed") compares two critiques of Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal." One is by Cleanth Brooks, a Formalist whom I like most dearly. The other is by F.W. Bateson, who I don't know much about except that he doesn't like historicists. So Hirsch is comparing two critics that are not from his camp, and he makes it a contest. Hirsch believes in determinate meaning, so one of these guys (or neither) has to be "right."

Hirsch chooses Bateson as the winner, not because of his optimistic interpretation, but because of the word "pantheistic." Hirsch sees that word as proof that Bateson is taking into consideration the life and times of Wordsworth, a Romantic poet who would have some pantheistic beliefs or motifs. Hirsch goes on to point out how the two critiques are irreconcilable and therefore one of them must be invalid. Pantheism seems like a silly way to determine a winner, but it would be silly for me to complain about his choice since I don't believe in determinate meaning anyway. The contest is the problem. If I ran a contest with these two, I would try to determine who was the better critic, not who gave the right interpretation. Here they are, first Bateson, then Brooks:

The final impression the poem leaves is not of two contrasting moods, but of a single mood mounting to a climax in the pantheistic magnificence of the last two lines . . . The vague living-Lucy of this poem is opposed to the grander dead-Lucy who has become involved in the sublime process of nature. We put the poem down satisfied, because its last two lines succeed in effecting a reconciliation between two philosophies or social attitudes. Lucy is actually more alive now than she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature, and not just a human "thing."

[The poet] attempts to suggest something of the lover's agonized shock at the loved one's present lack of motion -- of his response to her utter and horrible inertness. . . Part of the effect, of course, resides in the fact that a dead lifelessness is suggested more sharply by an object's being whirled about by something else than by an image of the object in repose. But there are other matters which are at work here: the sense of the girl's falling back into the clutter of things, companioned by things chained like a tree to one particular spot, or by things completely inanimate like rocks and stones . . . [She] is caught up helplessly into the empty whirl of the earth which measures and makes time. She is touched and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image.


I was so moved by Brooks and kind of grossed out by Bateson. For instance, the line "We put the poem down satisfied" really rubs me the wrong way. If we subscribe to Horace's miscuit utile dulci, maybe putting a poem down satisfied is what we should hope for? But satisfaction is not exactly the same as delight. Delight doesn't require any thinking. Bateson's satisfaction is not instant or aesthetic, but apparently based on his own interpretation which smooths out any conflict in the poem. On a "reconciliation between two philosophies or social attitudes." That's pretty vague, and it hardly sounds satisfying. Certainly not delightful. It's as if he's saying the poem has satisfied its requirement to come to a resolution (as if that is a requirement of good poetry).

Bateson's pantheism angle turns Lucy's resting place into an Elysium instead of a dead stone revolving in space, but besides creating some nicer imagery than Brooks' darker interpretation provides, I don't think the critique is very effective (or affective). The whole aim of it seems to be, like I said before, to smooth out conflicts, to reconcile differences, and to cancel out oppositions without a hitch. He talks of "two contrasting moods" that are actually "a single mood," without making anything out of how these moods were sublated or elevated. He talks of the dead-Lucy "opposed to" the living-Lucy but doesn't explain the opposition, ending on a bittersweet line, the equivalent of "she's in a better place now." It's almost mawkish.

Two moods becoming one, two people (who are really one) who oppose one another, two philosophies reconciled -- these things all seem pretty interesting, and like they might occur at some climactic hinging point in the text, but Bateson doesn't bring it out of the poem. He just explains it conceptually and we are supposed to accept it. The funny thing is he does mention something that sounds exciting, and even uses the word "climax" in the line at the front of the paragraph, where he claims that "a single mood mount[s] to a climax in the pantheistic magnificence of the last two lines." Sounds so exciting, and then he doesn't deliver on it.

My impression of Bateson's critique is sort of just that -- an impression. And he even calls his own critique an impression of the poem. But even if his prose style moves someone more than it moves me, even if his vague impressions of the poem are enough for someone else to sink their teeth into, there would still be that undeniable attempt to "solve" the poem there, to smooth it over, to get relief from its tensions. What that does is just turn the poem into its interpretation. We have the end result so there's no use in re-reading the text. I may not like Bateson's delivery of his critique, but more importantly I don't like his aim. It's anti-climactic.

Brook's critique may be slightly amiss in its pessimism (even if we're not going to be historical, let's be reasonable -- I would take into consideration that Wordsworth is not a poet of sad, dark poems, so me might avoid going down the "agonized" path), but its strength is that the conflict in the poem is not canceled out. It makes for a better critique when conflicts and tension are pointed out explicitly. And if a claim is made that a text has a climax, something climactic should be brought into focus by the critic. In fact, the critique itself should have a climax.

The first line of Brooks's paragraph has us picturing a cold dead body through this whole thing, a lover looking on in "agonized shock." The "shock" may be a little over the top, but it certainly gives us an image to hold onto while Brooks elaborates on what the text does with the dead girl, and the beautifully understated "present lack of motion" makes the lifeless body even more vivid. Brooks then uses the concrete language of the poem (rocks, trees, rolling...) and shows how the differences between alive and dead, still and moving, are depicted "sharply" by Wordsworth's chosen images. He also substitutes some of his own sharp, concrete words like "whirled about" contrasted with "object in repose."

Brooks drives his images home, perhaps a little more than a Wordsworth poem seems to require. The death in the poem sort of washes over us and leaves us drenched in the weight of Lucy's helplessness. It's not nearly as "horrible" a thing as Brooks makes it out to be. But even if Brooks gets carried away, the tension he points to, and even the sadness he alludes to, is real. Perhaps this contrast between Brooks's pointed prose (which can be quite poetic) and Wordsworth's fluid poetry makes that even more apparent. The poem is not merely translated into an interpretation and left for dead, but complemented and brought to life by a good critique.

In the second half of Brooks's paragraph, things are still "at work" in the poem, not reconciled. Brooks finds similar tensions to what Bateson found (although Brooks focuses on still vs. moving where Bateson focuses on life vs. death), and he magnifies them and explicates them with a close reading on rocks and trees and such. In the last two lines of the paragraph, Brooks combines the poem's concrete images with some abstract and more emotional language to create a critical climax: "She is touched and held by earthly time in its most powerful and horrible image." Wow. That is not a resolution, but a gorgeous predicament. And that makes the reader want to go back and pore over this poem for himself. Or, he can always go back to just drinking in the poem for what it is, the "impression" of it made a little more delightful by the critic's illuminations. Since the poem is never resolved, and it is always at work, it is always worth reading.

Brooks wins!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Against the Titular Colon

Resist...

One of my professors swears by colons in titles. He tells an anecdote: "I submitted a paper and it was rejected, with no notes. I added a colon to the title, changed nothing else, and it was accepted immediately." He has a sense of humor about this of course. But he still expects colons. The way I see it, the colon is making our titles ugly, and it's making our scholars lazy.

What the Colon Does
Since my papers were long enough and intense enough to warrant colons in their titles,
I've raged against the colon machine. Or at least poked fun at it, sometimes with a colon. Consider this: colons give the reader pause; colons begin lists (and our friend the semi-colon helps us with the listing); colons suggest that thing two explains thing one.

The second function of the colon listed here is not important to titles, because we can see at a glance we're not reading a list. The first function of the colon, however, is hard to ignore. When a title has a colon in it (usually closer to the front of the title than to the end of it), it makes the reader pause a little. We haven't even begun to read the first paragraph of the paper or article, and we've already been made to pause. I think the writer who requires a pause from the reader before he's even said anything meaningful must think a lot of himself. Writers' egomania aside, a pause in a short phrase like a title is not very elegant. If I look at the bibliography from my literary criticism class, there is not a single title with a colon in it. Defence of Poetry, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Poetics, Biographia Literaria, name only a few. One might argue that these titles are antiquated, that the colon is a modern title expectation or even requirement with a modern purpose. But does it make for a good title? No. These old titles are elegant, they flow, and they don't ask for pause in the middle of a first thought. They build expectations, they give hints, and they keep the reader reading. (I'm in reader-response mode this week, so naturally I'm thinking of the responses...)

"Defense! of poetry! Is literature at war!?"
"Oooh, lyrical ballads that can't be read until we read the illuminating preface..."
"Poetics, huh. Well, that must cover just about everything. I'd better get started."
"Biographia whaaa? I gotta find out!"

The "pause" funtion of the colon may create unstylish titles with bad flow, but the "thing two explains thing one" function of the colon is the real, supposedly useful reason these dots make themselves at home in today's titles. Like the professor's story shows, a reviewer may not be able to tell what your paper is about without that explanatory phrase after the colon. He doesn't want to guess or be given exciting expectations -- he wants to get through the pile quickly. So papers as commodities (both economic and academic) sell better when they have colons in the titles. Why not use these titles fow reviewing purposes only, and use a shorter version for print? I can't think of any other way around the over-explained titles. Certainly if something made it into a paperback for sale it would need a better title. No paying customer is going to stand for colons everywhere. It starts to seem like those old works with the short titles can wield those titles because they live up to the expectations they give us. Perhaps no one today can write anything that lives up to the "epicness" suggested by a beautiful or brief title? Or do the titles just have to get longer and longer, like phone numbers, because we've used them all up?

One big difference between the works in the bibliography and the colon-titled papers is the length and breadth -- most of those older works cover a lot of ground, but academic contributions today are doled out bite-sized. Scholars are writing shorter papers (for better dissemination) and being specific about what's in them is more important. I get all that. But that doesn't make the colon any prettier.

I have read some later pieces that do well with the short title. "On..." or "Against..." usually makes for a good start. So does "In defense of..." as we can see in many of the ancient titles. Irwin's "Against Intertextuality" comes to mind. And Fish's "Interpreting the Variorum," which I have to read this week for a presentation. Both of those titles intrigue me to no end.

What We Do with the Colon
We looked at why the colon might affect the reader, but we also have to consider what the sneaky scholars intended for it. There are several ways that the colon makes for titles that come off as knowing what they're talking about, or as some modern manifestation of style (if you can call it that -- bad style is an oxymoron, so there is disagreement on whether it can exist). The colon is often used in combination with a quotation from the work of literature being discussed, or from an earlier critic's work. Using a quotation is a clever way to make use of the explanatory function of the colon. Most often the quotation is placed before the colon, and after is a description of what the paper is really about. Here's two real examples:

"Telepathic shock and meaning excitement": Kerouac's Poetics and Intimacy

"Go": Milton's Antinomianism and the Separation Scene in Paradise Lost

The first title, as these titles so often do, borrows from Kerouac's style to create a style of its own. The scholar doesn't write like that, Kerouac does. And now she has a ready-made sexy title because she put his words into it. Thanks to the colon. And I don't even think she needed it! "Kerouac's Poetics and Intimacy" is a beautiful title by itself. Now, the second title is just ridiculous. Using a single word from the separation scene that doesn't mean much of anything in a title, the scholar got the "necessary" colon into it. The rest of the title is just clumsy. She might have closed her eyes and pointed to a line of the poem to save her shoddy title. "If I put something in front of the colon it will all be okay!" Neither of these papers are bad. I used both of them in papers I wrote my senior year. I take issue only with the titles.

Another way the colon is used by scholars is for a straight explanation of the short-version title. I already said why I think this has become somewhat necessary in today's market, but it means that scholars no longer have to have any elegance or authority in their titles because the pauses and complications of the colon-assisted title are expected. You can look through any catalog of university press books to find some hideous examples of these. You can just picture the writers of these books and articles smirking as they select the perfect quote to steal from the authors, type their obligatory colons, and sit back knowing they'll be published (or at least read) for playing the colon game so cleverly. I also picture cultural criticism and media studies fans getting giddy reading through these things. The longer the title, the more esoteric words in it, the more excited they get. Here's a clumsy one that's sure to fire up a lumpy subset of readers:
Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games

For some fictional examples of how egregious these titles can get, try this English paper title generator. The results are not far from the real thing.

One more disclaimer -- Subtitles are used in a similar way in the titling of books. There's something different about book titles though. They often have an elegant short title even if it's followed by a subtitle (which would be after the colon in a paper title). Maybe because the thing is actually getting printed in a book the scholar took the time to make a title that doesn't sound like all the others.

So I may or may not use a colon when I write my first paper as a graduate student. It's not going to get thrown out or rejected, since the professor actually has to read and grade the thing. Should I be bold and forgo the double dots? Maybe next week. This week I'll do as the assignment guidelines ask (yes, it's actually on the guidelines).

P.S. I know what "titular" means and the play on words doesn't quite work, but I left it there because I liked the sound of all those body parts in the title.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Philosophy Minor

Two weeks of two English classes at the graduate level, and I haven't come across another philosophy minor. English students are naturally curious, and most undergrad programs didn't offer enough English to round out our schedules. So we played the field. I chose to flirt with philosophy (after flirting with history, who turned out to be a bore) and then fell head over heels for knowledge. I may have a curiously intense love of "the love of knowledge," but if you are an English student who doesn't have delusions of being a full-time poet, I can't recommend philosophy enough as your second-study.

I can think of quite a few reasons to study philosophy, but I'll distill that down to three big reasons philosophy will help your English. Philosophy trains your brain for discourse; philosophy helps you write like a scholar; philosophy prepares you for theory and criticism. For me this all boils down to being good at what I like to do. If that's not enough incentive in this economy, these three things also boil down to being employable and publishable.

Some of you might not like the third reason for studying philosophy, so I'll start there. You might hate theory, but you can't get out of being a critic. In my current lit crit class, a first for some of the students in there, the professor reminds us, "You're all critics, whether you like it or not." And when you turn your critical eye toward literature, art, or culture, you need to understand the theoretical background of the type of criticism you are applying. For an understanding of what certain theoretical positions do or don't take into consideration, whether they look at a text up close or from a distance or from someone else's point of view, whether they have anything to do with the real world or are content to stay in the abstract, can keep your thinking clear, keep your arguments unmuddled, and make your job of critiquing much easier. A background in philosophy helps keep you focused in this way, to think things through and write on them with cogency, and most of all to have the intellectual confidence to approach theory in the first place.

If you still don't think theory is important consider philosophy alone -- the first critics were philosophers! On day one of your first lit crit class you'll have to recall Plato's forms and Aristotle's unities. Now, criticism fell to the writers themselves for centuries, though they still drew on early philosophical ideas about art. But then, in the twentieth century, we came full circle with the philosophers snatching up the literature once again (only reading them you might not know they're talking about literature at all) and analyzing the heck out of it, and so came and went "High Theory." Theory might be mostly passe, but like Plato it hasn't been forgotten. If you ignore theory, you'll be writing the criticism of a hundred years ago. Now personally I'd think that was pretty neat, but you'd have to be a damn good critic and writer to pull it off! So if you can't pull it off you'll be writing the criticism of your freshman year: bullshit. Even if you know that theory is not for you (and you may change your mind!), you can't escape theory's importance to criticism, and like I already said (and your professors will reiterate) you can't escape being a critic.

When we introduced ourselves in class, one girl said she would not be a critic, but simply read books forever. I confessed that I probably don't read enough books because I spend too much time writing about them (and everything else). The professor assured me that I would make more money than the book readers. I didn't mean for my confession to come off as a brag, but the professor's comment shows what kind of work you need to be willing to do if you're going to bother with advanced degrees in English. I credit philosophy with giving me the mental patience to ruminate on things in this way -- and to be analytical, not simply interpretive.

I also credit philosophy with giving me the patience and diligence to write more clearly, more cogently, and with more authority than a bachelor's degree in English demands. Sure we had to write a lot, but we weren't graded very stringently or very consistently. A few decent poems and a few insightful sentences per paper can get you a bachelor's degree in English. Since most programs don't require that many classes in the discipline, it's up to you to determine how the rest of your mind gets trained. Languages are helpful, but a minor in Spanish does not give you an entire framework on which to hang your knowledge the way philosophy can. History helps give the literature one kind of context, but for many of us that particular context turns out to be somewhat unimportant. Only in philosophy was I consistently required to produce top notch work and do top notch thinking, only in philosophy was I expected to provide an excellent argument for any claim I made, and only in philosophy did the red marks on my papers provide real assistance in becoming a better writer. There is no bullshitting in philosophy, not past your introductory course anyway. It is a good idea to purge that stuff -- muddy writing, unfinished arguments, irrelevant notions that work their way into your thought-stream, &c. We are English majors. Shouldn't we be the best writers? Philosophy majors score higher than us on the writing and verbal sections of the GRE. English majors/philosophy minors, let's teach them a lesson!

The first reason I listed for studying philosophy is that it trains your brain for discourse. Discussion is a spirited part of upper level philosophy courses (try to take seminars or special topics!) and we know, not just because Socrates told us, that dialogue is how we come by knowledge. Philosophical debate is excellent training for the kind of debate you'll encounter as a graduate student in English, or even in your upper level English courses as an undergrad. You will not only fare better at discussions, and weather disagreements better, but you will have seen how you can learn about something by talking about it with your peers (uh, I think I'm supposed to call them colleagues now). Too often in the English classroom we set our opinions in stone before we let anyone else's ideas do any work upon us. Discussions don't go anywhere. But why get behind an opinion, or even an interpretation if you don't have an argument? Philosophy gives you a mind that generates an argument, adapts the argument when you receive new information or ideas, and builds upon the argument dialectically even when it seems to have been canceled out. Read your Hegel!

Besides the discourse you'll encounter in class, you'll also be entering into some of the discourses that are going on in English. "Join the conversation," they tell you in undergrad, when you first learn to incorporate the criticism of the scholars into your silly papers. Philosophy is indispensible in joining the conversation, for the reasons mentioned above. And this comes back to the criticism --if you want to work, you have to be a critic, and if you want to be a critic, you have to join the conversation. Or start a really good one, with a really well reasoned argument behind it.

You can take my word for all these things, or you can ask a professor who teaches lit crit and theory or who uses criticism along with the texts in his or her courses. There are those who don't do either, and there are those who will tell you they hate theory. They may be creative writers, or they may be dedicated teachers. But the ones who teach theory and criticism, and even some of those who claim to hate theory, will remind you of the importance of both for your chances at grad school, and for your chances at a career in English. In today's competitive academy, shouldn't we try to be good at all the things English-people are supposed to be good at, including criticism, teaching, and writing?

If you think you'll read books forever, lying in the sand, or if you think you'll publish all your collected poems, or if you plan to be a master Shakespearean, maybe all of this will fall on deaf ears (blind eyes?). But if you have any interest in doing the work of the literary critic, which is what all of us are if we've declared that major in English, I highly recommend checking out some philosophy classes or talking to your adviser about how a philosophy minor fits in with your studies. The first step of course is getting some theory into your undergrad plans, so that all that criticism you read (and do) has some kind of meat to it -- and philosophy classes make those theory classes so much easier to deal with! The learning curve will be steep if your first encounter with both happens on your first day as a graduate student.

The only reason not to study philosophy? As far as I know, no one thinks it's cool.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Words, Disgusting Words


Everyone hates some words.

There are intellectual reasons to hate words and phrases. For instance, I hate "empower" because it got its contemporary meaning from a decade of ignorant usage. I also feel like its overuse has done a disservice to any women's movement that might have survived the '90s. I also hate, for intellectual reasons, businessy phrases such as "Please advise." Commands like that imply authority over someone, and I find them intellectually insulting. Also, due to my Heideggerian anti-technicity bent, I hate many words having to do with technology and media, such as "buzz" and "gadget."

There are stylistic and aesthetic reasons to hate words and phrases. For instance, a person who poo-poos old fashioned things may dislike archaic words and outmoded turns of phrase. I, on the other hand, dislike a lot of contemporary everything, and therefore dislike new words and phrases such as "sea change," as well as old words that have simply become fashionable, such as "deconstruct." And some words, we can all agree, are just ugly. "Defunct."

There are many sound reasons to eschew the use of a word in one's own writing, and we could make good arguments for any cringes we suffer while reading a magazine or a chick lit novel. However, the words and phrases we find most disgusting, the sight of which causes us to defenestrate the offending book, the sound of which causes us to cover our ears and shriek like King Arthur's men under the sonic influence of the Knights of "Ni," well . . .we have no reasonable explanation for our disgust, our almost bodily rejection of these slimy slovos. Some words are just fucking disgusting.

I will share mine, and then I'll share some friends' disgusting words. I'd like to solicit the reader's as well.

Words that kill me:

Smoothie

Softshoe


Trip the light fantastic


Words that kill Erica:

Satchel

Vagabond


Ragamuffin

The list is short but Erica is getting back to me with the others (I angered her just by asking about them!) so I'll add to this soon. I seem to have mentally blocked the rest.

My first two words in the list have similar sounds. Soft sounds. I hate them most when men say them. Perhaps I feel like they can't be soft, so the words are a lie. The second pair of words are both about dancing. I don't dislike dancing. Maybe I dislike epithets for dancing? The "fantastic" epithet here is not how the phrase was originally used. It was reworked and alluded to and ripped off a few times by successive poets and writers, and it is only in this final verbed form of it ("Let's trip the light fantastic, baby.") that makes me barf.

Erica's first two words are both about transients! I know she doesn't dislike transients. Maybe she was a sad hobo in a past life. The third word could even be a child transient.

What causes irrational word hatred? Word phobia even? Is it the sounds? (See Python "Woody and Tinny Words") Is it some repressed association? That seems likely since the words keep having things in common. (It would be easy, then, to put on a play using all of a person's worst words.) All I know is I hates me some words. Some I can explain. Some I can't. And those are the ones that make me want to break things.

Tell us your ugly, hateful words!

Tit!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The (sort of) Genius of Batman


I'm dealing with some aesthetic conflicts. I've a post in the works condemning some aspects of the postmodern aesthetic such as "camp," yet I've been watching the Batman TV series pretty often this summer, and liking it. In his book Genius, Harold Bloom declares (he's always declaring things), "The study of mediocrity, whatever its origins, breeds mediocrity." I tend to agree, and I argue that way in the anti-postmodern post. Camp works by exaggerating the mediocrity of things for a laugh, but also in order to draw attention to the marginalized mediocrity it lovingly pokes fun at, and ask why it is marginalized to begin with (which is a threat to "high art"). Unfortunately this often goes overboard, and becomes plain old bad taste, which I can't handle. I will, however, grant Batman an exception from my disdain even though some of the show is in bad taste. I have to, since some aspects of Batman's camp are hardly a testament to the preciousness of mediocrity, but just plain good and funny ideas.

The things I enjoy about Batman are the little things. The things which won the show its initial popularity are the things committed lovers of awful camp would bring up as why they dig the Caped Crusader -- they praise the false genius of the shocking colors, the garish costume designs, and the stylized acting (stylized acting can be funny and is usually handled much better on Star Trek). The catch phrases of the show are another type of camp -- "Holy x, Batman!" or "...inside stately Wayne Manor," always repeated the same way, like the stock footage of the Batmobile leaving the cave. These things, along with the repetitive storylines and similarly motivated (and mostly unintelligent) villains, become a formula. The formula was funny for awhile, but camp alone can't carry a series. Batman lasted only three seasons.

The best Batman episodes stick to the formula, mostly, but do things within the formula that are interesting. As Batman might say, "The devil is in the details, Robin." Or, the glimmer of genius is in the details. (Because the main event is always the same.) To give a few small examples, I'll tell you about the show I saw last night, about the villain "the Mad Hatter." He was out to steal the 12 hats (and 12 living bodies) of the 12 jurors who sent him up, and Batman's cowl was to make a baker's dozen. This would be a double prize - getting a rare hat (his obsession) and learning Batman's identity at the same time! The Mad Hatter didn't use this discovery to his advantage though, which was funny. Because the Mad Hatter really was mad, he had no plans for extortion. He was simply going to grind up Batman and turn him into hat felt, so he could wear him ... as a hat.

What I loved about this episode in particular was the dialog. Some of it was funny because of its subtlety. When Batman finally figured out that the 12 hats belonged to 12 jurors, he exclaims:

"How could I have been so stupid!?"

Robin, showing no emotion under his little mask, offers up some dubious consolation:

"All in all Batman, you've been pretty busy."

HA! I don't know exactly why, but I thought that was hilarious. What the hell does Batman do besides fight crime? Bruce doesn't have a day job, that's for sure. And the fact that they had to feed the question "What comes in dozens?" to the super-Bat-computer to figure out who the 12 hats belonged to... that's just priceless. The duo normally deduce all sorts of impossible things from random clues, but in this scene they became super-dependent on the mounds of technology around them -- but not dependent on over-acting, thanks to Robin. Some scenes could gain a lot of humor if they would suddenly switch to subtle line delivery instead of their typical exclamations. (I'm glad I saw this on Chicago's MeTV channel, because a YouTube search just showed that TV Land cut the end of this scene out for time! The whole thing's uncut here at 5:23.)

Another round of funny dialog came when the Mad Hatter was explaining his scheme to his girlfriend/assistant Lisa. She worked at a millinery so she was probably a little mad too. Every time he explained a piece of the plan she would coo in her sexiest voice about how great that was -- only she used the most unexpected words. "How whimsical!" that the Hatter wants to kill twelve people. "It's positively merry!" that Jervis is going to have all those hats. And "How waggish!" that he will steal Batman's cowl to boot. When Jervis shows Lisa his felting machine and explains how he'll be wearing a Batman hat (made out of Batman), she lovingly calls him a "pixie." Yes, a disgusting, felt-poisoned pixie topped with a flesh hat. Throughout the episode, whenever the Mad Hatter goes on and on about his mad scheme, one of the henchmen keeps interrupting him, "When are we gonna eat!?" I have no idea what that was supposed to mean, but the repetition of it was excellent.

Back in the Batcave, the technology that Batman and Robin had come to depend on was all sporting its ever-changing labels. Everything is labeled in the Batcave. I'm surprised the duo don't label their wardrobe: "CAPE." "TIGHTS." "FLOPPY SHOES." Some of the labels around the Batcave are funny because they are a mile long: "GIANT LIGHTED LUCITE MAP OF GOTHAM CITY." Because we needed to know that it's made of lucite? And we couldn't tell it was giant. Some labels are funny because they are meaningless: "INTERNATIONAL FREQUENCY DETECTOR." (This label was sticking up into the frame so we couldn't actually see what the detector looked like... imaginez-vous!) And the best labels are funny because they are completely unnecessary, and thereby make a self-reference to the labeling frenzy: "TELEVISION." So we're not that far off from a label for "CAPE." This was the first season, and they're already making fun of themselves as dutiful agents of camp.

If you look at the backgrounds (before they became awful paper cutouts with Tim Burton lighting shining on them in season three... mediocrity breeds mediocrity), there are always labels hiding, and some help us understand the story. Or, more likely, they help fill holes in the poor reasoning of the formulaic writing. When the Mad Hatter had a French artist (who spoke French in the show -- they must have some culture in the Batman writers' corral!) seal Batman in plaster, there was a helpful sign on the wall: "SUPER FAST HARDENING PLASTER." This explained why Batman couldn't get away from the stupid plaster. If it hadn't been for that darn "super fast hardening plaster" sign, he could have just wiped it right off.

I was trying to imagine the labels working in a cartoon and I don't think they would. Not in a busy looking cartoon like The Simpsons, and not in any cartoon I worked on where machines were a part of the backdrop. There's just too much to look at. It works with Batman because you're not really looking at Batman all that closely since he always looks the same. The only cartoon I could think of that labels might work in (and they might actually use them) is Roger Ramjet. I'll have to write about him next. He is some camp and all genius.

Speaking of camp and its kissing cousin kitch, I'm watching Frasier while I'm writing this, and Niles just butted in on my Batman reverie with some related commentary. Lilith just announced she's getting married in Las Vegas. Niles responds:

"Isn't that delightfully kitschy! Since this is your second marriage you're poking fun at the institution by having the ceremony in the tackiest place you could possibly choose!"

By the way, have you ever seen Batman type a search string into his microfiche sort of machine? (I didn't read the label because I was watching him type. WHACK! SMACK! POKE! FUMBLE!) Check that out. It's campy. But it's funny too.