Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Speculative Theory-Making about Cultural History

In the current issue of the New Yorker, there is a rather unscientific survey of 20th century American culture that leads author Adam Gopnik to make the rather specious claim that mass culture gravitates towards the production and consumption of literature, art, music, and film expressing nostalgia for (or celebration of) the culture of forty years prior. To marshal evidence in support of this idea, Gopnik gives a handful of examples where high-profile artists have looked to the quadri-decennial past for inspiration.

Somewhat persuasive are his observations that the 1970's brought forth several gangster flicks hearkening back to the depression era (though I'd note that it was during the depression that the original romanticizing of 1920's, prohibition-era gangsters took place), and that the 1980's were a ripe time for WWII films (to which I'd add that WWII has been a consistently popular subject for film through the 1990's and into the 21st century).

Particularly questionable are his claims that The Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Your Mother Should Know" are examples of "1920's pastiche," and that the 1990's were in any way nostalgic for the 1950's (his hilarious evidence: the Will Smith-starrer "Men in Black"). Gopnik also requires some creative math to explain why the current interest in Mad Men—which originally prompted this revelation—refers to the early-to-mid sixties, closer to fifty years ago.

As much as I think that Gopnik's theory is total bunk, it is a fun undertaking to speculate how this sudden surge of mass interest in certain subjects comes about. Gopnik's essay is a slightly more sophisticated version of Cynthia's "theory" in the film Dazed and Confused, which is itself a film made in the year 1993 about the year 1976 (a seventeen-year-cultural-retrospective theory anyone?): "It's like the every-other-decade theory, you know? The '50s were boring, the '60s rocked, and the '70s-- Oh, my god, they obviously suck. Come on. Maybe the '80s will be radical. You know?" These attempts to impose order on the process of cultural evolution is understandable: the pace of change within American culture is frightening, and if we had some predictive system, like a cultural forecast, then we'd feel at least slightly sheltered from the changing weather of tastes and trends.

It is tempting to suggest, for example, that the 1990's disaster movie (“Twister,” “Armaggedon,” “Deep Impact,” “Volcano,” “Dante’s Peak,” etc.) arose out of a sense of anxiety about the eschatological implications of the new millennium. I suspect, though, that the timing had more to do with the more prosaic fact of evolving film technology, and how CG suddenly made possible all of these large-canvas films that otherwise would have had to rely on <gasp> actors playing out the subjective emotional reality of characters facing the end-of-days. It suddenly became much easier for studios to green-light more effects-heavy projects, knowing that the result would be in the surer hands of computers rather than the flawed human creator.

Yet, despite my relative certainty that technology is more responsible for these trends than any inherent “pattern” to culture, I too would like to make an equally unsupported assertion using an equally unverifiable theory about the progress of culture in the last 100 or so years:

Recently, while at a committee meeting, I alleviated my boredom by developing a bogus theory concerning the way that the outcasts and undesirables of one generation invariably become the heroes of the following one. So, in my unsubstantiated formulation, the 19th century comes to a close with an all-out assault on the tramp or vagabond figure, who is depicted as a parasite on society (who, in the immensely popular Horatio Alger stories, act in sharp contrast to the industrious and work-minded hero), and the 20th century begins with the celebration of the tramp character, with books like The Road by Jack London for the first time casting a nostalgic glow on the hobo trail. Perhaps the most recognizable figure from this period in film history is Charlie Chaplin's "tramp" character, who loomed large in the popular imagination of the aughts and teens of the 20th century, making the idle rich into the consummate villain.

Then,n the 1920's, the idle rich take the stage as larger-than-life figures, absorbed in their own fashions and music and modernity (see “Don Juan,” and “The Jazz Singer,” and really the whole Al Jolson ouevre). In the prohibition era, it is the violent gangster who is seen as the outcast, portrayed as disruptive to the “innocent” breaches of law, such as a rich socialite taking a drink at a dance. Yet in the 1920's, for every Jay Gatsby, there is a Wolfsheim whose unsavory extra-legal dealings threaten to spoil the party.

As I mentioned above, the 1930's saw an influx of movies depicting the brief, violent lives of gangsters, who—in what one imagines to be a catharsis for the poor and the downtrodden—defy the system and the law-makers who represent it. In gangster movies such as “City Streets” (1931) and “Bad Company” (1931), even when the law wins, it is the outlaw who emerges as the representative of the people. Both of those films featured actors portraying characters based upon Al Capone, even as his real-life reign as the crime boss of Chicago had yet to come to an end. By the time Capone was finally indicted and jailed for tax fraud, it is the law-makers who are portrayed as latterday Sheriffs-of-Nottingham to Al Capone’s Robin Hood. 

It is those same law-makers and law-defenders—the men in uniform—who would eventually become the heroes of the 1940's. In the WWII era, it is the civilian—the man who indifferently goes to work and ignores a higher calling, such as service—who comes to represent society's weak link. His failure to serve is represented as either evidence of his cowardice, or as unjustifiable selfishness. While "the boys" are out risking their lives, the working stiff is punching a time card, oblivious to the hardships being suffered abroad.

But the working stiff had his heyday in the 1950's, when the ordinary everyman character features in nearly every drama, comedy, and even tragedy (read: Willy Loman from “Death of a Salesman” and Arthur Miller's explicit proclamation that the everyman shall have his hour in "Tragedy and the Common Man"). Even the drone has his pride of work, and the nobility of fulfilling his everyday duties, unlike the hated misfits who live at the fringes of society.

There can't be much argument against the claim that the 1960's was the decade of misfits. Though an undercurrent throughout the 1950’s in films featuring James Dean and books penned by Jack Keruoac, William S. Burroughs, et al, it is the 1960’s that saw an entire generation identifying with the misfit type in its manifold forms. So what type of character was demonized in the 1960’s and 70’s? The materialist, ambitious only for personal wealth and personal gain at the expense of society, community, and planet—the very embodiment of the money-chasing hero in Michael J. Fox’s America of the 1980’s.

In the 1980’s, the bespectacled dweeb is the mocked and tortured outcast. In virtually any film of the decade targeted to adolescents, it is the privilege of every high school athlete to trip, dunk, tease, or pummel the Waldoes and Poindexters. To list them here would be redundant. If you watched TV or movies in the 1980's, you know what I'm talking about. Even the films that pretended to celebrate this type of outcast (“Revenge of the Nerds”) gleefully participated in the mockery.

In the 1990’s, the hipster—bespectacled, unshaven, ironically out-of-fashion, socially awkward and indifferent to team sports, for whom everything is an “alternative” to something else—was born. 

So if you want to figure out what is around the bend for American culture, you have only to answer the question, “Who do the hipsters hate?”

Perhaps, frighteningly, depressingly, we are now entering the era of the follower. After all, Fox News and the tea party are holding the microphone (or megaphone) and show no sign of letting go, and the loud neo-conservatives who populate talk-radio and cable TV are nothing if not marching in lock-step. And why should Americans in the 21st century care about tramps, flappers, gangsters, soldiers, workers, misfits, and dweebs, when we have our beloved gadgets—a culture-filter that allows us just enough familiarity to judge every human type we encounter as ridiculously, pitifully unlike ourselves?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cool places on the East Coast that no longer exist

(1) The Book Barn, Bethany, CT -  It doesn't get much better than having 80 cents in your pocket, and then discovering a store where you can shop for hours on that budget. I used to spend entire afternoons flipping through the maps, prints, and postcards section of the book barn. At ten cents a piece, I would take home miniaturized etchings by Duhrer, prints of Hokusai, and Ansel Adams photographs in 5"x7" postcard form. Once, I splurged on a 100-year old, 30-volume copy of Honore de Balzac's "Human Comedy"-- for $30 (A few years after that, when I needed cash, I sold it on ebay for $350-- "a 1000% profit!" I thought briefly, though these days I respect the book barn much more for making it affordable than my 21-year-old self for selling it at such a high margin of profit).

Taking a hard look at the book barn, it's not difficult to see why they went out of business; they were out in the middle of the nowhere, in a hard-to-find location that, from the outside, you couldn't even tell was a business. They kept emus, for chrissakes. Plus, their most loyal customer (yours truly) could spend all day there for less than a dollar, and leave completely fulfilled. How dare they sell pleasure so cheaply!

(2) The Cloud Watcher, Providence, RI - On the green between Main St. and the canal, a couple blocks up from the Cable Car and a stone's throw from the Korean War Veterans Memorial, there used to be a rather simple sculpture: a figure in painted bronze, a striped tee and jeans, laying down with his fingers laced together behind his head, eyes towards the sky. Resting exactly between college hill and the business district, his creator seemed at first to be taunting passersby immersed in the bustle of industry with a reminder of a leisure they themselves could not enjoy. But the pacific expression on the face of the cloud watcher himself was not taunting at all, but blissfully indifferent.

I can't say whether or not the cloud watcher sculpture meets the threshold of fine art-- especially if we are using complexity as a gauge for its artistic achievement-- but I always felt something when I passed by it, whether it was envy or kinship or, at night, strangely unsettled. Anyway, it was several orders better than what inherited that public space after it was gone: a sculpture of a giant pair of trousers.

(3) The Bollywood Theater, East Windsor, NJ - There were about twenty different businesses in this Jersey strip mall, any of which we could have been referring to when we said, "I'm going to Jamesway," but we rarely if ever were referring to Jamesway itself. Then, when Jamesway had been replaced by another department store, among strangers we might have appeared to be speaking in some kind of cant when we insisted we were "going to Jamesway." During my last year of high school, "going to Jamesway" somehow referred to hanging out at the Bollywood Theater. There were no subtitles, mind you, just a guy with a puffy white shirt unbuttoned at the top, wooing a girl with impossibly long hair on a bicycle wearing a sari. We'd have to come up with our own explanations of how they got to the desert from the city, and why they are suddenly dancing with umbrellas.

How did I not realize how great it was to have our own Bollywood Theater in my home town? And why doesn't every town now have one?

Friday, November 11, 2011

How culture moves

Full disclosure: I can't really explain how culture moves. Whatever alchemy turns an individual act of creative exploration into a permanent cultural force is mysterious, even to its creator, and a subject of wild speculation even on the part of scholars generations after the fact, speaking with the benefit of hindsight.

Having spent my entire adult life working in the arts, surrounded by accomplished writers, poets, painters, musicians, and other extraordinary creators, I can say with some authority how it doesn't work. Within the arts community, and outside of it, I have encountered many strange ideas about how culture moves, expressed with great confidence, but amounting to a glorified form of magical thinking, which I will try to use this space to dispel.

(1) Culture does not move like products in the free market. That is, unlike the best brand of peanut butter, the market does not decide which works are the most important, the most vital, or those that contain the potential to transform the culture itself. The historical correlation, in literature, between book sales and depth of cultural impact is so slight, for example, that you would do just as well correlating its influence with the book's other properties, such as color, weight, or texture. Or, perhaps more to the point, if you were to take two books out of the library at random that were dated from the 19th century, it is quite likely that the less popular book has had the more lasting cultural impact.

(2) Culture does not move like canons perpetuated by academic institutions. That is, if the free market does not get to decide, neither does the intelligentsia. Harold Bloom tries but fails to unseat Edgar Alan Poe; the Nobel Prize committee ignores Philip Roth and hopes he'll go away; a small cadre of true believers prematurely elect Infinite Jest a 20th century classic. Strategems to engineer influence of this kind can be temporarily successful, but in the long term, despite our attempts to subvert or replace them, certain works still gain traction and stick in our collective hair like... well, like peanut butter, I suppose.

(3) Culture does not move like internet memes, rapidly replicated and quickly forgotten. Richard Dawkins brilliantly devised the term "meme" to describe the cultural gene-- the melody that gets stuck in your head and plays on a loop, the unusual flourish of paint on a piece of pottery that gets imitated and copied by other ceramicists, the strange phrase that spreads and spreads until everyone begins using because it sounds right-- but no where does he suggest that the same principal operates on the level of art. Rightly so, because while you can certainly credit foundational works of literature like the King James Bible, Dante's Inferno, and Shakespeare's Hamlet for becoming meme-farms, they do not compel us merely due to the addictive, skinner-box-like attraction to the noise they make. They contain a wholeness, an integrity of creation, that is greater than the sum of their parts, and which the "meme" explanation does not account for. Look, for example, at Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary for an example of a meme breeding ground that, for all its brilliance as a compilation of cynical wit and wisdom, contains none of the coherence of a work that will penetrate the culture to the degree that his less meme-worthy story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," has.

As far as I can discern, certain cultural manifestations take hold and stick because of either their absolute mastery of a particular form, genre, or style; or because of their revolutionary potential-- their power to change the nature of their medium by their evident originality. That is, they are the most representative or the newest. But here's the catch: few artists of any stripe can achieve work that is relevant or new by striving to be relevant or new. In other words, deep cultural influence is unpredictable, and art can never be manufactured with the intent to change the culture. Which is bad news for propagandists, but good news for writers and artists. You can stop trying to position yourself at the center of things. Instead, you can follow your own imperatives.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Family Drives

I confess to taking a sudden and unexpected interest in the BBC show "Top Gear" over the summer. And it isn't just the British humor and the inherent boyishness of car-obsession, but I am actually becoming fascinated by the cars themselves. This is troubling because (a) I am no where near affluent enough to collect cars, (b) as an English professor, thinking about cars is a huge distraction, and (c) the hosts of the show are virulently anti-environmentalist and hostile towards the very idea of public transportation. I've always liked trains, personally, and I'm pretty keen on the planet too, but for the first time in my life I find myself staring at nice cars out in public, like a perverted Transformer.

The other day, though, the family had just finished dinner, the kids had already done their homework, and we didn't want to miss the last daylight of another autumn day. So we piled into our minivan and took a family drive, exploring roads in our tiny rural town that I had never even noticed before, and finding ourselves on country roads that seemed to go on forever, without any GPS noise to distract us from the experience of noticing. It was quite clear to me then that my fascination with the car-show had little to do with the cars themselves-- my Dodge Caravan is a boring metal color, bruised in places, and for chrissakes it's a minivan-- but had to do instead with the mundane joys of "driving about," something I had known as an 18-year old maybe, but quickly forgot in the rush of getting-there, as un-missed and un-thought-of as a lost tooth. But because of the show, I kept feeling about in my mouth for the gap, and was surprised to find that particular missing tooth growing back.

I have never paid more than $3000 for a car. And soon, given the state of the van and the needs of the family, I almost certainly will have to. But I'm fortunate to have escaped the narrow obsessions of speed and power that appear to be the perennial fixations of car-culture. For I could have easily confused my love of travel with the love of traveling fast. I could have easily mistaken my family for extra weight, burdening a perfect machine that might otherwise have accelerated forever.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


October is full of wonderful things. While that's true in general, it is true in particular of this October because I will be doing readings in two of my favorite places: Providence, where my book takes place; and Boston, city of my birth.

I will read at my alma mater, Providence College, on October 6th at 7pm. This event will be funded by several departments and the alumni association. It has been coordinated by poet Jane Lunin Perel, and I feel so welcomed by them, I might write another book about it.

Then, on October 7th at 9pm, I read at the Out of the Blue Art Gallery, for their Dire Literary Series, located at 106 Prospect Street in Cambridge, Mass. (Okay, so not Boston-Boston, but still Boston.

What I'm really excited about in October, though, is hosting Zachary Mason for our Pleiades Visiting Writers series here in Warrensburg, Missouri. Mason's book The Lost Books of the Odyssey is among the best books to come out in the last ten years, and it has been deservedly acclaimed by the NY Times and named a notable book. He'll be out here for a reading on October 13th. It will be epic-- a word that I don't use lightly, but in this case, since it concerns Odysseus...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Predictable hypocrisies

Proselytizers of "inner peace" who, in person, demonstrate a fundamentally aggressive nature.
Psychologists who suffer from severe mental illness.
Gay-bashing politicians who turn out to be gay.
Too-permissive parents who raise stressed-out kids.
Advocates of a healthy lifestyle sneaking a cigarette.
Petty intellectuals.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Things that ought not to be surprising, but are:

Birthdays, and other occasional reminders of one's mortality.
Discovering a new interest or activity that doesn't fit who you think you are, like sailing or golf.
A breakfast joint with real maple syrup on all the tables.
The salesman who leans in and whispers, "You can get this stuff much cheaper elsewhere."
The film breaks in the middle of the movie, and the theater is dark and silent.
The lightning sounds like it is much, much closer than it is.