Friday, March 23, 2007

Between W-2s and 1040s

Someone I knew once said, upon closing on a condo, that she could not wrap her mind around having completed such an adult rite, as she still felt she was 17. Myself 18, I nonetheless knew exactly what she was talking about. While closing on anything seemed far off for me, college, the supposed transition between adolescence and adulthood, was right around the corner.

About six years later, I can say that I still have not shook that feeling my co-worker expressed then, that of being a young person pretending to do older people things, like buying furniture, putting money in a retirement account, and filing taxes. Filing taxes in particular gets at the crux of what I fear about adulthood: building an ever-more complex life. After all, this year, I really did not have many tax forms to deal with and much income to report. Woe to the day when I have to itemize deductions and report dependents, when I have to buy a file cabinet for my papers because my simple sectioned folder no longer suffices.

I think these thoughts too about other adult things. Buying a home, for instance, seems to catapult a person into a sea of forms called notes, titles, and deeds and a series of calculations about what to insure and for how much. I feel the more I have to insure, the more I will have sunken into adulthood, which in this modern world, seems to mean owning things and having stakes in things, in some ways, being less mobile. Right now, owning a bed seems a drag on me, what will I do when I own a whole house? How will I be able to pack it all, should I choose to move? Will I be able to get away with not having to consult the terms I have signed onto on a contract, as I have with my filed away lease on my apartment, or will I have to bone up on contract terminology in order to haggle with this or that person about his or that problem? Yeah, I think too far ahead for my own good, though it seems as if some of us are inching that way already, those who are buying condos or getting engaged, for instance.

I'm in no hurry to accumulate stuff, to own, to be settled. I figure that time will come, but still, in this first year out of college, such considerations suddenly don't seem so remote. That doesn't mean they need be impending.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Soporific Sex Magazines

I've been meaning to write about an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine which looks at the appearance of sex magazines at elite universities. I had a hard time believing that the subject was timely--such magazines have been notedby the media many times before. Moreover, the author, Alexandra Jacobs, seems to attribute a false ingenuity to the young sex magazine publishers. On the contrary, the magazines emanating from students at top universities like Harvard ("H-Bomb"), Vassar ("Squirm"), Columbia ("Outlet"), and University of Chicago ("Vita Excolatur") are emblematic of the larger cultural cult around being frank about sex. Straightforwardness about sex can be useful in a high school sex education class but becomes a bore when it masks as a source for entertainment or enlightenment, as it does in these pretentious periodicals.

Such magazines follow a larger trend, and in this sense, the college students putting them out are among the last to have boarded the bandwagon. This is why what they're doing is neither revaltory nor original but rather symptomatic of their inculcation from the entertainment media. My generation matriculated in an age where such inane mantras as "sex sells" became media gospel, begetting an ubiquity of sexual images and articles. Surely then, sex magazines at college are not original, as the coverage given to them would suggest, nor often are they very interesting.

In fact, sex columns and magazines are not necessarily interesting at all. While there are some subjects whose surface blandness belies their depth, sex to me seems the exact opposite: it is a subject that is initially salacious but quickly loses steam, probably because, when you get right down to it, there isn't really that much to write about. Think of all of the giggling high school students who greet sex ed with mocking anticipation at the beginning of the semester, only to yawn through human anatomy quizzes and contraception lectures a few weeks later. Some of the most popular subjects taken up by sex writers--sexual positions, sex toys, and porn--are those most lacking in actual breadth and depth. It's no wonder that so many sex columns devolve into cliches, with the predictably spicy writing styles of their authors overtaking the substance of the column, such as this explication of aphrodisiacs in the Northwestern student-published NU Comment.

Why then is the media breathlessly heralding the arrival of these magazines? According to the Boston Globe piece:

The public fascination with H Bomb clearly stems from the sense that there's not much of a place for sex at Harvard.

According to the NY Times Mag piece:

Considering that a smorgasbord of Internet porn is but a mouse click away for most college students, there’s something valiant, even quaint, about the attempt to organize and consider sex in a printed magazine.

That's a stretch. Such obsequious coverage of these magazines is evidence to me that Ivy Leagues truly do function as brand names. If a shoddy sex magazine has the word "Harvard" or "Columbia" on it, it suddenly becomes an inquisitive forum for reflection, even if its articles on the likes of the value of condom use at best serve the function of a sex education class.

I actually found myself agreeing with the National Review about the worthiness of such student endeavors:

Now, it’s one thing to engage in a bit of naughty publishing (on the university dime, at least) but quite another to do so and pretend that it’s something high-brow. You’ve read Ulysses? Maurice? Tropic of Cancer? Well, clearly now it’s time for something with saucy pictures! Pornographic modeling, once thought to be the exclusive realm of would-be actresses, sexual abuse victims, drug addicts, and other exploitable populations has clearly found a new pasture for flesh, with Ivies offering extracurricular careers (and funding!) to anyone interested in getting a head start in the sexual entertainment industry.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

How to read a book

In today's Salon, Tom Lutz writes about a rash of new books that examine how one should read a novel. These books are united by their authors' distaste for academe, for the college English departments that have built a jargon-laden, "ism"-oriented discourse that perverts the true value of reading literature. Lutz does not tolerate this analysis. He remains skeptical of the "new criticism" approach which the authors of the how-to books embrace. Founded in the 1940s (though surely not wholly original), new criticism focuses on the "close read" of a text and eschews consultation of extra-textual sources--particularly biography--to analyze literature. Lutz criticizes the writers of the how-to books for clinging steadfastly to the dogmas of new criticism in order to bolster their literary authority against the academic critics.

Lutz is certainly right that it is difficult to prescribe a method in which to read and not always interesting to read the prescriptions. The insistences of the how-to writers that a good reader engages only "the text itself" is also dubious. Like many theories about the irreducible, new criticism is initially alluring but is based on some false premises, namely, the idea that a text can be distilled to "the words on a page" and nothing more. Every reader comes to a book with different experiences and therefore will extract different things from the book regardless of the fact that the words themselves are the same. What's different is the person interpreting the words. An attempt to enforce a uniform reading of literature is precisely the wrong way to broaden and enhance literary discourse and enrichment.

On the other hand, the methods of new criticism do have much to offer. In my own experience, I gained much more as a reader using close read methods like analysis of metaphor, attention to diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure), discernment of tone, etc. than I did reading literary criticism. Close reading requires that the student actually support claims with text-based evidence, which forces him to go beyond the vague suppositions that are often thrown around when discussing literature. Comfort in supporting one's claims with evidence is eternally valuable and should be central to the teaching of English, a discipline which its students unfortunately often struggle to find useful, even though at its best, it upholds the valuable skill of strong communication. Use of the techniques of new criticism to read promote the development of this skill and need not be shunted off, especially if they are only to be replaced by Marxist, Freudian, or feminist critiques.

One last thing that Lutz scolds the how-to-read folks for: bemoaning the "glut" of books published. One writer, John Sutherland complains of the "world in which millions of books are dumped in the marketplace at once," which like Lutz, I hardly think a problem. Isn't the easy availability of books an encouraging sign of a literate culture? Would Sutherland be happy with the opposite, a world in which few books were published? Is it even possible for any society to so refine its manuscripts so that only the great books are published, as he seems to desire? I am comfortable with an argument that the publishing industry overhypes a small selection of books and simultaneously neglects some great literature, but that does not mean that fewer books should be published. Anyone who criticizes a book glut should himself question whether he need publish yet another how-to-read a book tract.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Oprah and a Lottery Culture

Peter Birkenhead at Salon has an excellent article today about Oprah's enthusiastic campaign on behalf of a self-help book called The Secret, by Australian talk show host Rhonda Byrne. According to Birkenhead, The Secret is social darwinism preached with a treacly, new age spin. It espouses such wisdom as this: "The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts." As Birkenhead says, Oprah's endorsement of this book calls into question her newest philanthropy project, the opening of an all girls school called the Leadership Academy in South Africa:

On the special, Oprah talked far more about what the school would do for the girls' self-esteem and material lives than what it would do for their intellects -- sometimes sounding as if she was reading directly from "The Secret." And in discussing what she was looking for in prospective students, she didn't talk about finding the next Eleanor Roosevelt or Sally Ride or Jane Smiley. Instead she used "Entertainment Tonight" language like "It Girl" to describe her ideal candidate. She praised the girls for their spirit, for how much they "shined" and "glowed," but never for their ideas or insights. Oprah puts a lot of energy and money into aesthetics -- on her show, in her magazine, at her school. The publishers of "The Secret" have learned well from their sponsor and are just as visually savvy.

Shouldn't we be grateful that Oprah is doing good, one might retort, what does it matter how she chooses to do it? The problem with Oprah's brand of altruism is two-pronged: it's fundamentally narcissitic, and it knows only lavishness--it is never applied in moderation. Oprah's shows are all about Oprah and her reactions. We need to find her jokes hilarious, think her life story a model, and sit in wait until she reveals who she's supporting for president. We need to awe at her beneficence as she showers her audience with big ticket gifts like cars and homes. I am compelled at this point to think of the Jewish scholar Maimonedes' eight levels of tzedakah, of giving, where the lowest levels are those where the recipient and giver both know each other's identities. Oprah never rises above the lowest levels. She requires that her beneficence be broadcast, that her identity be known to the beneficiary, that her imprint of luxury be made upon all that she gives.

As Birkenhead points out, her philantrhopy is unfailingly television-savvy:

Oprah's TV special about the Leadership Academy, essentially an hour long infomercial, was just as well-coiffed and "visuals"-heavy. In fact, when Oprah was choosing her students, her important criteria must have included their television interview skills. On-camera interviews with the girls were the centerpiece of the special, but as one spunky, telegenic candidate after another
beamed her smile at the camera, I couldn't help wondering how Joyce Carol Oates or Gertrude Stein or Madame Curie would have fared -- would they have "shined"
and "glowed," or more likely talked in non-sound-bite-friendly paragraphs and maybe even, God forbid, the sometimes "dark" tones of authentic people, and been
rejected. Sadly, the girls themselves (and who can blame them, desperate 12-year-olds trying to flatter their potential benefactor) parroted banal Oprah-isms, like "I want to be the best me I can be," and "Be a leader not a follower" and "Don't blend in, blend out," with smiley gusto.

This form of beneficence, in which the benefactor TV personality acts as savior to the destitute is lottery-style philanthropy. One must hope to win the attention of an Oprah to have his story aired on television and his life changed by a TV crew. "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," hosted by Trading Spaces' Ty Pennington is another television show that promotes the hosts' altruism and a win-the-lottery approach to life by lavishing a Sharper Image store's worth of the newest in home entertainment upon the homeowner. It seems that Oprah and Ty Pennington cannot bestow anything less than the best (or biggest) upon their beneficiary. As Birkenhead puts it:

One of Oprah's signature gimmicks has been giving stuff away to her audience ("giving" here means announcing the passing of stuff from corporate sponsors to audience members), most notably in a popular segment called "My Favorite Things." These bits have revealed an Oprah who truly revels in consumer culture, and who can seem astonishingly oblivious to the way most people live and what they can afford. She seems to celebrate every event and milestone with extravagant stuff, indeed to not know how to celebrate without it.
While one person or 350 young woman have won the lottery by winning Ty's or Oprah's fleeting interest, one wonders whether such abundance of resources could be spread out more evenly. While it's better that "Extreme Makeover" focus its energies on refurbishing a park hit by Hurricane Katrina and a soup kitchen hit by Hurricane Wilma than on revamping the home of a well-healed yuppy, it is worrisome that one has to hope for the attentions of a television show or else remain forgotten. After all, "Extreme Makeover"'s crew cannot possibly rehab all of the destitute areas of the country, every New Orleans or Appalachia or South Bronx, especially if it feels the need to include plasma televisions and Sub-zero refrigerators in each home. Nor can Oprah be expected to educate millions of children in Africa. In a society where people look to "Extreme Makeover" to do what this government cannot do, one has to hope to be one of the chosen few.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Cantankerous Conservatives

The collective groan that conservatives let out towards the roster of GOP presidential candidates at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) evidences how truly indulged these people are. According to the Washington Post, none of the top three contenders--Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney--appealed to the rank-and-file and the establishment members of the conservative movement. It seems that none of them are "conservative" enough for CPAC. Instead, CPAC attendees are lining up behind one-isssue extremists, as in the case of a college sophomore from Michigan quoted in the article who is supporting anti-immigrant zealot Tom Tancredo of Colorado. That conservatives cannot even get behind more mainstream candidates Giuliani and Romney, who are themselves conservative, shows how much they have been indulged by the right-wing Bush administration. While Democrats in recent elections have increasingly coalesced behind the "most electable" primary candidate, loyal Republicans have backed the most dogmatic contender.

The best result that could come of conservative obstinacy is that Republicans fracture themselves, with the conservative base driving them to nominate an extreme candidate who cannot win in a general election. More likely, in my opinion is that the party will coalesce behind John McCain--or maybe Mitt Romney--whose conservative loyalties the right-wing will continue to exact. (McCain has already shown himself willing to abandon his past statements against this wing, such as his attempt to submerge his previously-expressed opinion that Jerry Falwell is an "agent of intolerance" by speaking at Falwell's own Liberty University). Right now, McCain wants to have it both ways: he wants to be a maverick and be the Conservatives' candidate. However, if the media does its job and the Democratic opposition does their's McCain's true colors as a political opportunist will be exposed.

Glen Greenwald makes a great point over at Salon on just how blatantly hypocritical are Republicans and members of the media who point to diffuse blog commenters as representative of liberal anger and hate and ignore the bile of blatant bigot Ann Coulter, who is a prominent fixture at CPAC. In a speech made there this past Friday, she called John Edwards a "faggot" and last year at the same event directed slurs at Arabs. As Greenwald says, the media has held Democrats responsible for anyone that makes an off-color remark on a blog while summarily ignoring the hatred and bigotry expressed by the Republican party's top brass:

But that's all fine. There are much more important topics to discuss -- like the anonymous commenters at Huffington Post and the bad words said by the bloggers hired for low-level positions by the Edwards campaign. Those are matters of the gravest importance meriting the most solemn condemnation and righteous outrage from all decent people. Those HuffPost commenters have uttered terrible thoughts, and that shows the anger, venom and hatred on the left, among liberals. It is cause for great alarm -- and for headlines.

But the single most prestigious political event for conservatives of the year is a place where conservatives go to hear Democrats called faggots, Arabs called ragheads, and Supreme Court justices labeled as deserving of murder -- not by anonymous, unidentifiable blog commenters, but by one of their most popular featured speakers.

As Greenwald says, the sanctimony of conservatives against liberal bloggers is disingenuous at best if they continue to give a pass to the fulminations of their own:

This is why I wrote so extensively about the Edwards blogger "scandal" and the Cheney comments "scandal." The people feigning upset over those matters are either active participants in, or passive aiders and abetters of, a political movement that, at its very core -- not at its fringes -- knowingly and continuously embraces the most wretched and obvious bigotry and bloodthirsty authoritarianism. They love Ann Coulter -- and therefore continue to make her a venerated part of their political events -- because she provides an outlet, a venting ground, for the twisted psychological impulses and truly hateful face that drives the entire pro-Bush, right-wing spectacle.

As Greenwald says, Coulter "is the face of what the hard-core Republican Party has become."

Friday, March 02, 2007

Bard pun, continued

My favorite co-worker Ben-jammin'* (just kidding, other co-workers) is doing my work for me. No, not my real work but my blog work. He has spotted a pun related to D.C.'s Shakespeare Fest. Here it is, care of the Washington Post:

"The Shakespeare in Washington festival kicks off six months of no-holds bard. "

I think every editor must love articles about Shakespeare, because they are so easy to title. The bard lends itself to endless puns, none of them very good but all easily-conjured when they need to be, which for editors is probably in the wee hours. I haven't yet been to any Shakespeare in Washington events, which I feel kind of bad about, and I half suspect that I will not end up going to any of the events, either. First of all, I don't really know what Shakespeare play I want to see--my favorites of those I have read are King Lear and Love's Labour's Lost--but I don't have a burning desire to see either. I don't particularly want to see a Shakespeare play that I haven't read, because I usually feel I don't understand the play on just a cold viewing. I've also decided that since Shakespeare Fest is six-months long, surely I will be able to make it to at least one event. Because of its long duration, though, I have not made the effort to actually participate, comfortable with the fact that six months seems like a long time in my world, until suddenly it's June and I'm walking to work dripping with sweat and noticing that the last Shakespeare Fest event happened the night before.

*Benjammin' is not my original nickname for Ben. It is actually trademarked to Jake.