Friday, October 29, 2010

Fortuitous Reading

I haven't had time to type lately, and sometimes even lack the means (the y is now missing off my personal laptop), so I'll quickly share a piece of Derrida that made me strangely happy. At the end of "Structure Sign and Play" he's talking about how the implications of deconstruction can be interpreted as either positive or negative, as something to be struggled against, or as something affirming, in the Nietzschean sense. This bugger is made up of only two sentences, the second one the more exciting:

"For my part, although these two interpretations acknowledge and accentuate their difference and define their irreducibility, I do not believe that today there is any question in choosing -- in the first place because here we are in a region (let's say, provisionally, a region of historicity) where the category of choice seems particularly trivial; and in the second, because we must first try to conceive of this common ground, and the différance of this irreducible difference. Here there is sort of a question, call it historical, of which we are only glimpsing today the conception, the formation, the gestation, the labor. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the business of childbearing -- but also with a glance toward those who, in a company from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity."

Yyyyikes! We read this last part in class and a cluster of us chanted in a weirdly satisfying whisper:

...what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


I wouldn't have made that particular connection to Yeats if I hadn't just started reading Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Sure, "The Second Coming" is an oft quoted poem, but to pull it out of Derrida was fun. At some point a reader starts to find she's read so much that all the connections begin to make sense. I used to know when an allusion was being made, or some language borrowed from somewhere, and was even able to track down the source sometimes. But that does not give the same satisfaction as being able to hold multiple texts in one's head at once and get positively giddy about all the possibilities of interaction between them.

Besides my first in-class experience of the literature student groupthink phenomenon (we are after all, an "interpretive community"), and what struck me as the beginnings of my finally having read some significant (but still minuscule) portion of all the things I want to read, I know the first time I'd ever read the paragraph, alone, I was smiling like an idiot and not knowing why. Whatever connections I didn't make on my first solo read, I was at least moved in some way, which seems like a funny thing to be when you're reading about structuralism.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Does Sap Sell?

Buy some shit or I'll make you cry.

It is probably a fact that sex and rock n' roll sell. As much as feminists and other ad police complain, we can't deny our basic urges for sex and ecstatic rocking (or jazzing, or grooving, or hip hopping or whatever it is you do to lose yourself). But who came up with the idea of salesy sap? Lately everything from phones to cars to pills has a commercial with sappy, sort of hopeless music. What are they trying to do to us? Make us more depressed than we already are?

Remember when they'd sell us stuff by rockin' us out? By "they" I mean the current advertising hegemony. A couple years ago I wrote about the abuse of classic rock lyrics in advertising. They always take the lyrics so far out of context that the ad becomes absurd. Well that still pisses me off, but at least the music is good! It's catchy, upbeat, and I can see it making someone want to buy something. Motorola used AC/DC's "Back in Black" a few years back, and it successfully made me buy a bitchin' black Razr phone. It died and I miss it.

In addition to sucking, sappy music doesn't help the consumer remember the product. I can think of half a dozen sappy car commercials, but I have no idea what the hell those cars those were. A vague impression of a Chrysler logo comes to mind for one of them. Snappy, not sappy, helps memory when it comes to products.

If sap does sell for some people, it might be because of a current trend in listening to sappy music, like Jack Johnson. Even if you like that sort of thing, you can't call it catchy or advertising appropriate in any way. The makers of the sappy commercials, knowing their music won't appeal to anyone who doesn't listen to "adult alternative," usually throw in a sappy storyline to help us remember the commercial. That car commercial where the just married couple drive out to a tent in a field (dude, you could have at least gotten a real tent that doesn't melt in the rain), and the girl is kind of funny looking in a cute way with her weird haircut and flowers in her hair... yeah that one. So sweet right, with the sappy music and all? Well, I couldn't tell you if they were driving a Subaru or a Volvo or a Volkswagen. I'll guess that it wasn't a Volkwagen because VW usually has an excellent sense of humor.

Here's that commercial, in case you don't watch TV (you probably shouldn't). The singer sounds like he's dying. I like that it even ends with "We could have gone a more traditional route, but it wouldn't have been nearly as memorable." Wait, what are you selling again? Life insurance?

The worst part about some of the sap songs, like the one in the AT&T commercial that rips off Jeanne-Claude and Christo, is you can't even understand the lyrics. So you walk away from the TV with some vague impression of a vague product (some phone or another...) and some vague lyrics to go along with it, that just sort of vaguely depress you and you don't even know why! I saw some shit or somethin'... and it was beautiful... (The only reason I know that's an AT&T commercial is because I looked up "Jeanne Claude and Christo ripoff.")

I don't like being sold to any more than the next educated person, but I at least like the sales pitch to have ring to it. I don't like to be depressed by advertising. It is depressing enough that advertising even exists, that it is a huge cash cow, and culture shaper. It shouldn't also make us want to jump in the ocean. Advertisers: if everyone kills themselves, no one can buy your shit.

I can think of two commercials that actually make great use of contemporary music. The music is a little saccharin, but it's happy! The Target commercial with the triplets (In a land where the river runs free...Where you and me are free to be you and me!) and the Holiday Inn Express commercial that's made Kyle Andrews famous (You always make me smile...Don't know why I love you...). While you won't catch me riding down the highway or even doing laundry to music like that, I'll at least acknowledge that the marketers of these products understand that making you cry isn't going to get you to buy backpacks or go on vacation. Giving you a little smile and a catchy tune to stick with you just might.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Growing Pains


Hello blog. Nice to see you. It's been a long time.

Those are nearly the opening lyrics of a Conway Twitty song I grew up with. It always reminds me of another Conway Twitty song, "Happy Birthday Darlin," a song which inexplicably made me cry my eyes out on my fourth birthday as I sat on the dining room floor looking at a catalog of home decor, including owls made of brown and yellow yarn and wooden beads. Because of these admissions, you can probably tell I will be 30 years old tomorrow. I plan on listening to some Conway Twitty.

My growing pains associated with turning 30 are only slight. I need to do something small for myself, like get an actual haircut. That should fix me right up. The more intense growing pains I'm experiencing have to do with grad school.

I'm in a masters program that is in no way designed for the aspiring PhD student. As I take more and more away from the course materials, it has become evident that I am in the wrong place, a place where there is no room for a student like myself to grow. This has nothing to do with other students (one of them started out super pretentious, then backed off completely). I know there are snobs and egos everywhere. It's just everything else about the program.

I blame myself for not aiming higher. I decided I had to stay local for grown-up practical reasons. Also, not one person I talked to really knew what it was like at this school. After two years of looking forward to this idea I had of "graduate study," within three weeks I became tortured by it.

But there is something new to look forward to! I'll have a new start in the Spring, in what I have verified through brilliant, trusted former professors is a super-traditional MA to PhD program in literature, with a teaching assistantship, a program in which one professor assured me I will "kick so much butt." (Last Friday I went out for drinks with all my old profs and felt so at home. Even if a school occasionally sucks, you should at least feel at home.)

I'm pissed, tortured, disappointed by this fall, but so hopeful for next semester. I think about it constantly. I feel like I'm running away or not finishing what I started, but at the same time I have to be an adult about this. So I asked yet another faculty member for advice before making a decision -- "No reason to be more unhappy than usual," she said. The consensus seems to be that there is no ideal place to be for this yucky thing called graduate school. It will probably always be "teh suck" in one way or another. But preventable, protracted misery is not a state in which anyone should spend five years or even two years of their lives. I will be at least 35 before I can be a "professor." And I don't want to look it. Here's to a fresh start at 30.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Art Problems, Partially Resolved


I found this on the Chicago Art Blog, when I was searching to see if anyone in the art world has complained about the Jeanne-Claude and Christo ripoff by AT&T:

"After all, the avant-garde contains in it the possibility of kitsch and kitsch the possibility of the avant-garde; they are separated by degrees not by kind, it's how they participate in constructing culture that makes the difference."

The blogger was not saying AT&T in particular was producing kitsch. No, that was just a plain old ripoff (I agree). But he discusses some other sort of kitschy recent ads, and their allusions to pop art may be semi-excusable. Maybe. Anyhow this little sentence neatly organizes an idea I've been trying to articulate for months! That same idea was there in a few critics I've read, but never put so clearly. I'm terrible at writing on things like "constructing culture," and I need cultural stuff to be wrangled into some more philosophical order before I can talk about it.

Maybe I can finally finish my Ranciere post now. Maybe.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

From Brooks to Fish (and back)

So I got an 'A' on my very first paper as a graduate student, and in that paper I applied Fish by picking apart Brooks. For me this was blasphemy, but I had to be Fish for this assignment. What better way to explain a critic I don't know much about than by pitting him against a critic I know well? And isn't there knowledge to be gained by challenging one's own critical stance? (Brooks's = mine, usually.)

Two weeks ago I compared Brooks with Bateson, and Brooks came out on top because of what I saw as his heightening of the paradoxes in the text, a Wordsworth poem. Next week, in comes Fish, and he says some of the same things about Brooks (well, about formalists anyway) that I had said about Bateson! In the first section of "Interpreting the Variorum," Fish takes on formalist interpretations of Milton, on whom he is an expert, and shows how the formalists fall flat. They flatten out the paradoxes in the text (I had accused Bateson of that, while attesting to the formalist's paradoxical prowess!) and remove the delight of the indeterminate meanings. Most importantly for Fish, and perhaps this is what I was getting at all along when I was looking for "the critical climax" (and probably projected that onto Brooks as I read him, Fish would argue) , the formalists completely miss that (part of) the meaning of the text is in our moment of hesitation, in the experience of textual confusions, in the experience of the overwhelmingness of the possibilities of meaning! I think I've been reading Brooks affectively, and not very analytically.

Brooks does point out textual cruxes and formal features that I find exciting, but it is perhaps my actual reading of Brooks, as it unfolds in time (flitting back to the text, back to Brooks, back to the text...) that is most exciting for me. You can see how Fish has planted the reader-response seed in my brain (I'm not sure if it's sprouting or festering now), and how I am flinging myself out onto that temporal axis of criticism, where I had once sworn allegiance only to the textual, the spatial. When I presented my paper my excitement about meaning-in-reading was catching -- students thought me a Fish fanatic! But, Fish aside, I can't deny that I have begun to read criticism like it is literature (isn't it?), and interpret and respond to it as such. In a way, I've never been looking for the most rigorous theory or the most provocative argument, but for who can tell the best story.

The way I chose to do this exercise paid off in spades. I come away with a new appreciation for a certain brand (species?) of Fish, and with a refreshed and revised view of what Brooks does to those texts with which the formalists claim a peculiar intimate relationship. I still cleave to formalism pretty tenaciously, but Fish's early reader-response work (forget "interpretive communities" for now -- I'm only talking individual reader's response) helped me to see outside the box (for in our textbook's diagram, the formalists really do live in a box) and look more critically at what Brooks actually does, and at how I read him and the rest.