Another Chuck story for me, in Yuletide Madness: In the Middle
Casey's the only smart one in the bed. I love Casey’s distinction between his partners’ types of stupidity.
The Opposite of Swarb, Connie Willis--Bellwether
Delightful fandom meta in great Connie Willis voice. The puns alone are enough to make the story fun! Now I kind of want to write a Five Cage Fights … fic.
Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle: It’s been a while since I read such a frustrating book all the way through. It’s an extended, unremitting, and therefore badly organized rant about how much America sucks, loosely grouped at least early on into chapters (our celebrity culture sucks, our pornography sucks, our education system sucks). It’s not even that I disagree with most of what Hedges argues, including that a culture of spectacle diverts people from large structural economic and political problems and hides the fact that we have engaged in a massive wealth transfer to the richest and more-or-less permanent impoverishment of the poorest among us.
But since we (Americans) just make Hedges sick, he is not interested in convincing or in offering solutions, just in spewing his polemic. This leads to a couple of systematic issues, aside from the frustrating lack of structure. First, Hedges thinks that he’s the only one who sees through popular culture, that the audience eats it up unquestioningly, seduced by WWE wrestling and Jerry Springer into thinking that image is everything.
Second, though he sometimes recognizes that the people we see on reality shows are often there to provoke “there but for the grace of God” reactions, he’s so disgusted that he has what is actually, I suspect, exactly the reaction the producers intended. He tells a somewhat misleading story about a Jerry Springer show featuring a man who has a fantasy that his wife will dress up in a cheerleader outfit and do a cheer/striptease just for him. I find this a rather sweet fantasy, to be honest. The show (which is only available on pay/DVD, not regular TV) then apparently has a woman in a cheerleader outfit demonstrate, including stripping off everything and giving the guy a lap dance, after which the wife is offered the opportunity to do the same thing in front of the studio audience and then does. Okay, I’m not really comfortable with that, but everyone seems to be consenting. The problem is: the man and his wife are fat (while the cheerleader, apparently, is so thin that she lacks much in the way of breasts, which Hedges also finds offensive). And this disgusts Hedges so much that he can’t stop harping on it. How dare fat people have sexual fantasies? How dare they show their naked bodies in public? Fat’s just another indicator of the moral decay of American society, to Hedges, but he doesn’t recognize how his own reaction is far from oppositional.
Because Hedges hates everyone, no accusation is too contradictory. So, today’s students “put in punishing hours, come to office hours to make sure they grasp what their professors want, and challenge all grades under 4.0 in an effort to maintain a high average. They learn to placate and please authority, never to challenge it” (emphasis mine). Now, there’s a way to reconcile these two statements, I think, but it would have something to do with resistance and subversion and negotiation, as well as with the place of educators in a university hierarchy (Hedges even mentions professors’ loss of authority, though given that he says they’re all corrupt servants of oligarchy, obfuscating in the service of their corporate masters, it remains unclear why he thinks that’s a bad thing) which are all too complicated for Hedges’ blanket condemnations. If you like unfair generalizations, you might like this book!
Bethany McLean & Joe Nocera, All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis: Covers both mortgage fraud and securitization follies, though with substantially more emphasis on the latter. Argues that though Fannie and Freddie Mac were wrongly blamed by certain groups (Republicans) for causing the mortgage crisis by encouraging loans to subprime borrowers, they were causally connected to the great collapse in another way: They promoted securitization, which breaks the link between the lender and the borrower, though when they taught the market it could be done they were securitizing prime loans. Then, they dominated the prime market, creating an incentive for private companies to find markets Fannie and Freddie weren’t in. Deregulation in the 1980s also comes in for its share of blame. Basically, the government stayed out when it needed to intervene, and then intervened only in haphazard and often counterproductive ways, especially since there was no single regulator with authority over all the entities involved. It’s an interesting if depressing longer view, with no solutions in sight; it might make a good second book to read on the crisis if you are so moved. You need to know what “being long” a stock means – the book assumes you already know. The authors are relatively sympathetic to Goldman Sachs, considering them just more effective at what everyone else on Wall Street wanted to do (though they also note that Goldman drove the culture on Wall Street, so I’m not as sympathetic), stating that Goldman lost money despite shorting mortgage-backed securities and those who relied on them.
Henry Jenkins, The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture: A series of collected essays on the subheading topic. As you might expect, Jenkins positions himself against the sacralization of reactions to culture; he’s interested in “excessive” responses and art designed to elicit those responses. Unlike what the typical unthinking snob will say, popular culture has plenty of standards. The rules are just learned outside of school and are more often about evoking emotion rather than about the distanced evaluation preferred by high culture. “The ability to dismiss certain forms of art as inherently without value paves the way for regulatory policies; the ability to characterize certain media forms as ‘cultural pollution’ also impacts how the general public perceives the people who consume such material; and the ability to foreclose certain works from artistic consideration narrows the ambitions and devalues the accomplishments of people who work in those media.” I was most interested in the chapter wrestling as masculine melodrama, allowing the expression of otherwise off-limits emotions; there are also discussions of videogames for girls and boys; Pee-Wee’s Playhouse; Lassie; feminism and exploitation B-movies; the comic actress Lupe Velez; and avant-garde artist Matthew Barney and his relation to the horror genre.
David Rakoff, Half Empty: Another essay collection, as charming and incisive as ever. The standout is Rakoff’s hilarious negative review of Rent, arguing that the musical Disneyfies New York, AIDS, and the condition of being an artist, stripping out all the truly important features—most notably actually making art. His adventures in various leisure destinations are also fun, packed with tossed-off observations such as, “Like all omniscient machines possessed of benevolent intent but lacking decision-making power, [the voice-activated computer in the high-tech kitchen at Disneyworld] is a she.”
The Hollywood Film Music Reader, ed. Mervyn Cooke: Collection of various 20th-century documents about classical Hollywood music (that is, not about popular music incorporated into films), often from the composer’s-eye view, including attention to music for cartoons.
Lauren Weber, In CHEAP We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue: I don’t know why cheap is in allcaps. Weber gives a general tour of the reputation of cheapness throughout American history, including its interactions with racial stereotypes and sometimes with gender. She has interesting tidbits about how pillars of industry decided that spending (or very occasionally saving) was the way to make the American economy work, but there’s very little here unless you want to hear her ending account of walking among the freegans for a bit. Conclusion: freegans don’t like how dumpster diving has become the key publicized feature of the movement, which is more comprehensively anticapitalist.
Sara Shepard, Pretty Little Liars: Suffering withdrawal before the Jan. 3 return of the show, I picked up the first book in the Alloy series on which it is based. Unfortunately, the book is weak tea compared to the show. The series is slow moving—the first episode and the first book are coterminous—and Emily is a WASP. In fact, the non-blondes in the core group are Aria and Hanna, whereas the show’s decision to make Hanna a blonde nicely upped her resemblance to Alison. The writing is at best functional, and by “functional” I also include “serving a product placement function.” Instead of the ordinary descriptive adjectives, there are brand names, averaging at least one a sentence. Two typical examples that struck me as particularly unintentionally hilarious: “Spencer stood up in the tub, grabbed her Ralph Lauren towel, and began violently drying her hair.” “Mrs. DiLaurentis still wore the same perfume – Coco Chanel. It instantly brought back all kinds of memories: A million rides to and from the mall in Mrs. DiLaurentis’s Infiniti, sneaking into her bathroom to steal TrimSpa tablets and to experiment with her expensive La Prairie makeup, going through her enormous, walk-in closet and trying on all her sexy size-2 black Dior cocktail dresses.”
Contrast the pornographic detail about brands with the sex, which apparently nobody has: Aria gets naked with her college graduate teacher/suitor, but by mutual agreement they don’t “have sex,” which is the limit of the description, despite the nonprocreative activities in which one might expect a 17-year-old and her much older paramour to engage. The target audience, presumably, is 7th- and 8th-grade girls who are much more interested in sexiness than in sex. While the descriptions of all the stuff the characters own are in some sense as accurate a caricature as that found in American Psycho, and while it was funny to read this book while also reading Hedges' screed on the vapidity of current celebrity, success-obsessed culture, in the end I felt worse off after I’d read it. Hedges isn't wrong about everything.